Bill seeks to help reduce suicides among veterans

07/10/2014 6:12 PM

07/10/2014 6:28 PM

The mother of a decorated Marine who took his life moved from grief to action Thursday as she called on Congress to do more to help stem the spike in veterans’ suicides.

Susan Selke described the tragic saga of her son, Marine Corps Sgt. Clay Hunt, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound March 31, 2011, after having served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Not one more veteran should have to go through with the VA after returning home from war,” Selke told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Not one more parent should have to testify before a congressional committee to compel the VA to fulfill its responsibilities to those who served and sacrificed.”

Hunt, a Texas native who saw four close friends slain by enemy fire in the two wars, was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities after his discharge in April 2009.

Selke later appeared outside the U.S. Capitol with lawmakers and veterans to support legislation targeting suicides among former warriors.

“Over the past seven years, VA’s mental health care staff and budget have grown by nearly 40 percent, but veterans are still committing suicide at a frightening pace,” Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the veterans affairs panel, told reporters.

A measure introduced by Miller, a Florida Republican, would make it more difficult for the Defense Department to give a less than honorable discharge to service members diagnosed with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act would require the Pentagon and the National Guard to review mental health staffing levels in each state, and it would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to start a pilot program to help VA psychiatrists repay their education loans.

Miller’s legislation also would require an annual independent evaluation of all mental health and suicide-prevention programs at the Defense Department and at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“There’s nothing that unifies the American public like caring for our warriors,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who served in Afghanistan as an Army National Guard command sergeant major before joining Congress in 2007.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who lost both legs after her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq a decade ago, said suicide among veterans is an urgent crisis.

“With an average of 22 veterans committing suicide each day, we are failing our own,” Duckworth said outside the Capitol.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been rocked by scandal over disclosures that VA staff members at dozens of VA hospitals maintained fraudulent computer records in order to cover up long waiting times for veterans to see health care providers.

Despite broad public support for veterans, legislation addressing the problem of suicide in their ranks has languished.

Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat who this year became the first Iraq veteran to join the Senate, introduced a suicide-prevention measure March 27 that has not had a committee hearing yet.

Walsh’s bill, which has only nine co-sponsors, would extend veterans’ eligibility for VA health care from five to 15 years and give psychiatrists financial incentives for working long term with the agency.

In a “Storm the Hill” mission to help suicidal vets, dozens of former Iraq and Afghanistan fighters met with more than 100 lawmakers in March, attended sessions with senior officials at the Pentagon, the White House and the VA, and participated in mental health panels.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 170,000-member advocacy group that organized the campaign, also held a ceremony at which its activists planted 1,800 miniature flags on the National Mall to symbolize the number of veterans believed to have taken their lives in the first three months of the year.

Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran who founded the group, said half of today’s vets know someone who has committed suicide.

“This is personal for us,” Rieckhoff said Thursday. “Our friends are dying.”

After his discharge, Clay Hunt spent almost two years appealing his PTSD rating of 30 percent, a VA determination that limited his medical and other benefits.

During his post-service treatment, Hunt complained of long waits to see mental health specialists and over-prescription of medicines.

His mother told lawmakers Thursday: “Clay used to say, ‘I’m a guinea pig for drugs. They put me on one thing, I’ll have side effects, and then they put me on something else.”

Five weeks after his suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs reclassified Hunt’s mental health status and raised his PTSD rating to 100 percent.

Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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