A new law requiring California to track veteran suicides was applauded Friday by the two Fresno legislators who authored the bill, the brother of a fallen Marine and a Visalia assemblyman and veteran who had a personal reason to support it.
“This is the first step in the right direction,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, a former sergeant in the Army National Guard who served two tours in Iraq.
Mathis said one of his fellow veterans, who welcomed him home after his second tour in Iraq, died by suicide a few months ago. “He was the happiest-go-luckiest guy I’d ever met,” he said.
His death can now be counted, Mathis said. “This allows us to track this so my brothers and sisters in arms and their families don’t fall through the cracks.”
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The Department of Veterans Affairs says 22 veterans die by suicide every day across the nation, but that number is a best guess, based on data collected by the VA. The agency has said 70 percent of veterans who kill themselves had no contact with VA mental health departments.
Under Assembly Bill 242, California – with 1.9 million veterans, the largest veteran population in the country – now joins 21 states in requiring that veteran suicides be counted. AB 242, authored by Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, requires that veteran suicides be reported to the Legislature and to the VA, based on information from death certificates.
Once California begins counting veteran suicides, the VA’s estimate of 22 deaths a day could likely double, said Tom Donwen, state and national chairman of suicide prevention for AMVETS. “This bill is critical to suicide prevention and awareness for veterans,” he said.
An accurate report of veteran suicides in California will show where to place resources, said Shawn Jenkins, senior vice president of San Joaquin Valley Veterans, an agency that serves veterans. “This is sad we have to be in this situation, but a good thing we are here and we can collect the data,” he said.
Patterson said the signing of the bill was bittersweet but will help California honor its veterans. And Patterson introduced Daniel Lorente, who he said had a “firsthand, deep sense of what is at stake.”
Lorente’s younger brother, Farrell Gilliam, a U.S. Marine corporal, served two deployments to Afghanistan, where he lost both legs from an explosive device’s blast on Jan. 5, 2011.
“My brother is extremely hard to talk about even to this day,” Lorente said. Gilliam, 25, died by suicide in January 2014.
Lorente said his brother had received the best medical care available at the time. Gilliam had 32 surgeries. And he had been excelling at a rehabilitation center, Lorente said. “He fought every single day.”
There was no indication at that time that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, Lorente said.
AB 242 will shed light on veteran suicides, he said. And it will help the country to start asking hard questions. “When we do, we’ll start getting answers that would have kept my brother here with me today.”
Veterans Crisis Line
For help 24/7, call the Department of Veterans Affairs Crisis Hot Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1.