Believe it or not, there’s a glimmer of bipartisanship in the new Republican-controlled Congress — a bill to step up efforts to prevent suicides among military veterans.
The measure passed the House 403-0 Jan. 12, zoomed through a Senate committee nine days later, and could very well be the first bill this session to land on President Barack Obama’s desk.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to call veteran suicides an epidemic. With many suffering from post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more soldiers are killing themselves once they’re home than are being killed in combat. That’s unacceptable.
It’s also apparent that suicide-prevention programs require a reboot at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, still trying to overcome a scandal over waiting lists for medical care.
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HR 203 — named for Clay Hunt, a 28-year-old former Marine who killed himself in 2011 — calls for a one-stop website for veterans seeking mental health services and also encourages the VA to work more closely with nonprofits. It offers to help pay the student loans of psychiatrists who join the VA. And it requires independent annual reviews of suicide-prevention programs at the VA and Defense Department.
Hunt enlisted in the Marines in 2005 and served significant time in Iraq’s Anbar Province and southern Afghanistan. After his honorable discharge in 2009, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received a 30% disability rating from the VA.
According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Hunt “constantly voiced concerns about the care he was receiving, both in terms of the challenges he faced with scheduling appointments as well as the treatment he received, which consisted solely of medication.”
Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the top House Democrat, and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the No. 2 House Republican, issued statements last week applauding the bill’s approval.
The bill is a top priority of IAVA, the largest group of post-9/11 vets. It delivered petitions with more than 59,000 signatures urging a Senate vote last month during the lame-duck session.
Unfortunately, one senator — Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — managed to block a vote. He argued the bill would duplicate existing programs and objected to its $22 million price tag. The current version addresses that concern by ordering the VA to find the money within its existing budget.
The bill’s chances are much improved now that Coburn has retired from the Senate. It probably also doesn’t hurt that veterans are getting more attention these days thanks to “American Sniper.” The movie, which is setting box-office records, and boasts six Academy Award nominations, has reignited an impassioned debate over the wisdom of the wars.
We all should be able to agree, however, that those very few people who volunteered to fight should get the help they need when they return home. Congress can help ensure that happens.