Preventing suicide to save veterans' lives

In a Congress known for gridlock and dysfunction, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal was proud to be part of a bipartisan action to save veterans’ lives.

Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide — and that’s completely unacceptable, Blumenthal said. They fall through the cracks from conditions such as post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and don’t get the mental health help they need.

“We must do a better job providing health care services to our heroes when they come home from war, many with invisible wounds and inner demons that they cannot overcome,” he said. “That’s why I joined with Senator John McCain to introduce bipartisan legislation to improve and modernize suicide prevention programs for our veterans.”

Their bill, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, is named after a 28-year-old Marine from Houston who took his own life after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, developing PTSD and failing to get the services he needed from the Veterans Administration.

President Barack Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on Feb. 12 at the White House. Blumenthal was there for the signing, along with Joanna Eldridge of Oxford.

“I was inspired to pursue this legislation after the tragic loss of Justin Eldridge, a Marine veteran and Joanna’s late husband,” Blumenthal said. “As I stood next to the president as President Obama signed the bill, and Justin Eldridge’s mother was there, I knew I was part of an effort that was making a difference.”

So few are making so enormous a sacrifice in the voluntary military services, Blumenthal said. He said the nation has yet to fully confront the ravages of 13 years of war, and that 30 to 50% of service members who fought in the wars suffer from the invisible wounds of PTSD, TBI or other mental illness.

More women are going into war and being affected, Blumenthal said. One of the veterans who committed suicide was a female service member from Connecticut, he said. He said he listened to Eldridge and others as they told their stories and let Congress know what they think is important to save lives.

A ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Blumenthal is one of only three Senate members who has a son or daughter serving in the armed forces, he said.

Blumenthal said he is proud of the work he did with McCain, Republican of Arizona, and his colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to pass the bill.

“We proved that, when it comes to those who have served this country, we are capable of bipartisan action,” he said.

Second time’s the charm

Last year Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma held up a vote on the bill because he objected to its $22 million cost. Coburn has since retired.

The House version of the act was re-introduced on Jan. 7 by Democratic Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman and Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, and Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. On Jan. 12, the bill unanimously passed the House and was sent to the Senate for consideration.

The Senate version was re-introduced on Jan. 13 by Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. McCain and 18 co-sponsors. On Feb. 3, it unanimously passed the Senate by a vote of 99-0.

Developed by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and allies on Capitol Hill, and driven by qualitative and quantitative data from IAVA’s annual member survey, the act will:

• Increase access to mental health care by, among other things, creating a peer support and community outreach pilot program to assist transitioning service members as well as a one-stop, interactive website of available resources.

• Better meet the demand for mental health care by starting a pilot program to repay the loan debt of students in psychiatry so it is easier to recruit them to work at the VA.

• Boost the accountability of mental health care by requiring an annual evaluation of VA mental health and suicide-prevention programs.

Read more about the research, the act and IAVA at IAVA.org.

Nancy Doniger is the editor The Easton Courier, a Hersam Acorn newspaper.

With President Barack Obama at the signing ceremony for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act are, left to right, Susan Selke (Clay Hunt’s mother), Richard Selke (Clay Hunt’s father), Sen. Joe Donnelly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Paul Rieckhoff (founder and CEO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA), Sen. John McCain, Bonnie Carroll (president and founder, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS), Gary Augustine (executive director, Disabled American Veterans), Michelle Obama, Jake Wood (co-founder and executive director of Team Rubicon), Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Timothy Walz.

With President Barack Obama at the signing ceremony for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act are, left to right, Susan Selke (Clay Hunt’s mother), Richard Selke (Clay Hunt’s father), Sen. Joe Donnelly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Paul Rieckhoff (founder and CEO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA), Sen. John McCain, Bonnie Carroll (president and founder, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS), Gary Augustine (executive director, Disabled American Veterans), Michelle Obama, Jake Wood (co-founder and executive director of Team Rubicon), Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Timothy Walz.

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