For once, there is cause to rejoice about bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress where – most often – members cannot seem to agree that 2 plus 2 equals 4.
Finally, members of both parties are about to approve overwhelmingly the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, an effort to help prevent suicide among military veterans.
The bill, which is championed by Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz (D-Mankato), among others, is named after a veteran who committed suicide. Clay Hunt was just one of the estimated 22 veterans who die by suicide every day – a sad statistic that adds up horrifically to more than 8,000 veterans every year, many of them older veterans who served in Vietnam.
The Clay Hunt bill would do the following:
- Require independent annual reviews of Veterans Administration programs and services – to strengthen those that work well, to discard those that don’t.
- Create a partnership with nonprofit mental-health agencies and devise an interactive website that will consolidate VA mental-health resources while expanding peer-support networks.
- Recruit psychiatrists for the VA with a promise that up to $120,000 of their student-loan debts will be waived as long as they work at a VA center for at least two years.
- Review and evaluate medications given to VA patients to make sure they are effective rather than being used just to mask symptoms and mental pain.
After the inexcusable scandals at some VA centers in recent years, including interminable waiting by veterans and doctored records, it’s long past the time when stringent reviews, corrections and improvements are made. Thankfully, the Clay Hunt bill will enhance the corrective actions that have already begun.
According to most reports, up to 20 percent of veterans from the Iraq-Afghanistan wars suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. That number is even higher for Vietnam veterans, as high as 30 percent.
Most of us cannot imagine what soldiers endure: death, lifelong physical disabilities, long separations from families, multiple tours of duty, seeing buddies die in front of them, seeing women and children suffer or die, working in a foreign landscape where hell can break loose at any moment.
Once back home, so many veterans then have to suffer all over again: therapy for disabilities, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, trouble sleeping, inability to concentrate and in some cases the inability to keep a job. Those are all symptoms of PTSD, and Clay Hunt, for whom this bill is named, suffered terribly from them. Hunt enlisted in the Marines in 2005 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point, he was shot through the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head. Back home, the Purple-Heart recipient graduated from a sniper school and was redeployed in Iraq. In 2009 he was honorably discharged.
Later, he returned to Houston, Texas to be near his family. Plagued by problems, he was determined to help others, including fellow veterans who were also having a tough time. He helped out in Haiti and Chile after earthquakes there; he worked with veterans on long-distance road-biking events; he spoke about his own anxieties and survivor’s guilt at support groups.
Hunt was given a 30-percent disability rating due to PTSD, but he could not keep a steady job and so he applied for a higher disability rating. Thus began a series of bureaucratic hurdles via the VA, including workers there losing his files at one point. The only “counseling” he received focused on how the medications they tried on him were working – or not.
One day, Hunt told his mother, “Mom, I can’t go back there. The VA is way too stressful and not a place I can go to.”
Two weeks later, he put a gun to his head, and he was gone.
His grieving mother said, “He did not get the care he needed. It ended in his death.”
Shortly after his death, his family learned he had just been granted a 100-percent disability rating. A sad irony if ever there was one.
Imagine how many others like Hunt took or will take their own lives; imagine how many are still suffering from physical and emotional wounds that need to be healed; imagine their frustration in not being able to find the help they deserve.
We send men and women off to war with patriotic hoopla; we should welcome them home with the same fervor and gratitude. They have served us, and now it’s our turn to serve them, no matter how much it costs or how long it takes.
Let’s make sure the Clay Hunt bill is just the first of many efforts to help veterans who made so many sacrifices on our behalf.