A "once in a lifetime" moment.
That's how Rep. Josh West (R-Grove) describes his experience, attending President Donald Trump's signing of an executive order dealing with the rate of active duty military and veterans suicides.
The event, which took place Tuesday, March 5 at the White House, starts a new initiative, ordered by Trump called PREVENTS - President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide.
Before joining the Oklahoma House of Representatives, West served tours of duty in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Army.
In 2003 he was injured during a mission. He sustained injuries to both legs and his abdomen. He was medically retired in 2005, but then spent much of the next year developing training protocol for military police during basic and advanced individual training. West's military honors include the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
West was invited to attend Tuesday's signing by Trump. He flew to Washington D.C., on Monday evening with his wife, Elizabeth, a U.S. Air Force veteran.
The topic of mental health and veteran's suicides is near and dear to the couple. West frequently champions legislation dealing with veterans and mental health issues. Elizabeth West works as a mental health professional, currently serving as the Children's Services Director for Grand Lake Mental Health.
West, who was traveling, he received the invite on Friday, after a staffer for Trump tracked him down through the Oklahoma Speaker of the House Rep. Charles McCall.
West said he immediately said yes to the request, even though it came at his own personal expense.
"I was happy to do it," West said. "Obviously [veterans issues] is a big part of my life.
"I was asked to be the guest of the president. I felt like this was an opportunity I couldn't turn down."
West said the staffer indicated Trump wanted him to attend because of his work regarding veterans issues.
In 2017, West and Rep. Kevin McDugle (R-Broken Arrow) helped form a veterans caucus representing members of both the Oklahoma House and Senate.
Since the trip meant West would miss a day of session, he secured approval from McCall before accepting the trip.
On Monday, prior to leaving for Washington D.C., West presented his bill which will allow first responders to claim PTSD as a workman's comp issue.
This is the second time West has been invited to meet a U.S. President. In April 2004, he along with other members of the military, were invited to have a meal with then President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
"[Bush] was very personable, it was like having a meal with your uncle," West said. "The White House was a different setting and the topic was mental health awareness, which was awesome."
About the event
West was joined by 14 others at the signing, including the national commanders for several military organizations, as well as three members of the 82nd Airborne, and the Secretary for Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.
"I was just happy to be there," West said. "One of my platforms is to do away with the stigma for any mental health issue. I was proud to go and represent Oklahoma at the signing."
PREVENTS is designed to establish a task force to examine the issues surrounding the suicide rate of active duty service members and veterans.
It is designed to explore partnerships beyond the Veterans Administration to include with state, local, tribal, territorial, non-profit and for-profit entities, all working to address the issue.
"They want to see what they can do to help the veteran," West said. "Especially in states like Oklahoma, where veterans don't have an easy access to the VA mental health facilities."
West said like initiatives starting at the state level, officials will work to develop a plan from which policy can spring forth. The task force will be led by Wilkie and the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.
West said Trump was "very personable" during the event. Trump presented those in attendance with a black marker, embossed with his name, like what he uses to sign his orders.
"[Military suicides are] a tough subject to tackle and I'm proud he's willing to tackle this," West said. "I hope this can move us forward.
"I also hope this gives me a platform to bring attention to other topics involving veterans."