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Why a veterans' mental health bill is stuck in Congress

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IAVA
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Major supporters of the Clay Hunt SAV Act include the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

 

The Pentagon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help struggling soldiers, but numbers show these efforts have done little to stop the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day.

President Barack Obama has vowed to do more to stop what he has called "an epidemic" of suicides in our military.

There is a bill in Congress that aims to provide more mental health services to veterans, but some think it won't do much.

Clay Hunt was a young man when he enlisted in the Marines in 2005. He earned a Purple Heart after a bullet barely missed his head in Afghanistan. When Hunt returned home he was disillusioned and upset by Americans' ambivalence toward  the war.

Hunt's parents, Richard and Susan Selke, spoke on CBS's 60 Minutes.

"He was saddened by the fact that Americans didn't seem to be impacted by what was going on in the world. That we lived kind of in a bubble," said Richard Selke told 60 Minutes.

"That the Marines are at war and America's at the mall. And it was just the realization of the disconnect," Susan Selke added.

Hunt was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was vocal about his struggles. He went on bike tours with wounded veterans and was in a public service announcement that urged struggling troops to get help.

Chris Neiweem is with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of  America (IAVA), which lobbied Congress with Hunt.

"Clay Hunt was not only a combat Marine but he was a national advocate," said Neiweem.

Hunt finally succumbed to the depression he had been trying to escape. In March 2011, he killed himself in his apartment in Texas.

“It was a hard loss for the veteran community but it also illuminated the need to focus on mental health issues within the veteran population," said Neiweem.

Neiwmeem said Hunt received all his medical care from Veterans Affairs, but he complained about his treatment.

When he moved back to Texas, Hunt waited weeks to get important medication refilled.

"What went wrong was there were gaps in support for Marines like Clay," said Neiweem. "There are a lot of gaps in some states where there are better services than others. And when it comes to mental health, it really becomes detrimental when there are gaps because that's when some of the problems can show themselves."

The IAVA and Hunt's parents urged Congress to fix the problems at the VA Lawmakers from both parties have introduced the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans, often called the SAV Act.

The proposed law requires independent evaluations of the VA's suicide-prevention program and expands peer-to-peer counseling. The proposal also allows the VA to recruit more psychiatrists by offering to pay-off their school loans. Neiweem said the bill will cost $22 million.

"It's a low cost fiscally for the type of effect it will have on the community."

The House unanimously passed the SAV Act last summer, but on the final days of 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma blocked it in the Senate.

"I object to this bill not because I don't want to help stop suicides, but because I don't think this bill's is going to do the first thing to change what's happening," he said.

Coburn argued the bill does not address the real problem. He said the VA already has peer counseling. They already have a website and a team of psyciatrists.

"What's going to change what's happening is when we as members of the U.S. Congress and Senate start bearing down and creating the transparency that's necessary. So Americans can see that our veterans are getting everything they deserve," Coburn said.

Dr. Stephen Xanakis is a private psychologist based in Virginia. He agreed more VA oversight is necessary, but he said he told army leadership they need to help soldiers before problems develop.

"Let's look at it in a sense of we know this team has been through a lot of stress, they've been banged around, and let's take a snapshot and figure out what we need to do to make this team as healthy as we can. Which is different than saying, 'I'm going to find out what problem you got, give you a diagnosis and treat you.' Soldiers don't want that."

Xenakis said he is not convinced the Army has made suicide prevention a priority. In December, Xenakis testified on behalf of a former Fort Drum soldier who deserted his unit and flew to France to join the French Legion. The soldier said he was trying to outrun suicidal thoughts. The Army panel who judged the former soldier sentenced him to four years in prison for desertion.

"They punished him for making the decision the army wanted him to make which is not to kill himself. So I think this is a real test case – is the Army going to lead by what it says its priorities are," said Xenakis.

10th Mountain veteran Stephen Carlson, who considered suicide, is skeptical of the bill too.

"I think the people pitching it are pitching it as some sort of silver bullet that is going to end veteran's suicide today. That’s a good marketing line. I don't buy it."

Carlson said no silver bullet is going to fix this problem; it is too complex. He said although he never reached out to the VA, Clay Hunt did.

"If it makes just a small dent then it's worth doing," said Carlson.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn is now retired from the Senate.

The House again passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act Monday and now it goes to the Senate.

 

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) helps those struggling with thoughts of suicide. Veterans or members of the military Press 1.