VA suicide overhaul bill gets push in Congress

Susan Selke, mother of Marine veteran Clay Hunt, who killed himself March 31, 2011, attends a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 19, 2014. Selke and her husband, Richard, looking on from behind, listen to Valerie Pallotta testify before committee members about the suicide of her son, Joshua Pallotta, who killed himself 6 weeks before. Selke and Pallotta tesitfied before the committee in support of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 19, 2014

WASHINGTON — A proposed review and expansion of VA suicide prevention programs is gaining steam in Congress during the lame duck session.

Mothers of two servicemembers who committed suicide were set to testify late Wednesday in support of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act in the Senate, where a group of Republicans and two Democrats introduced the bill this week. House lawmakers were slated to review their version of the legislation later in the day.

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It was a strong signal that lawmakers might consider passage before the close of the congressional session at the end of the year, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has pushed the legislation. The bill mandates new resources and an outside review of VA efforts to reduce what the military calls a suicide epidemic, especially among younger vets returning from the past 13 years of war.

“While this bill won’t fix everything, it is a big step in the right direction,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during the bill hearing.

It is estimated that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

Burr joined fellow Republicans including Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to introduce the bill on Monday.

Susan Selke, the mother of Marine veteran Clay Hunt, spoke to reporters before she was slated to testify in front of Burr’s committee, saying she met privately with VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday about the legislation and was told he would support it.

The bill requires the independent review of suicide prevention programs to determine which work and what changes should be made. It also would create a new website to link veterans with mental health care services and provide incentives for psychiatrists to join the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hunt survived a brush with a sniper’s bullet during combat in Iraq and became an advocate for suicide prevention. But he struggled with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, and took his own life in 2011 at the age of 28.

Selke, who was to testify with the mother of a Vermont National Guard combat vet, said she just learned of a new suicide among members of her son’s old unit, and that suicide has now claimed as many victims of the unit as combat did.

Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for IAVA, said the Clay Hunt Act is a first step toward stemming the deaths and figuring out how to improve the VA mental health care system.

House lawmakers have indicated they will take a floor vote on the bill during the lame duck session, a critical step toward it becoming law, Nicholson said.

But the Senate may not be able to craft its version and complete the process of getting it to a floor vote. Nicholson said Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated to the group that he may consider allowing a fast-track floor vote that might make taking action on the suicide measure impossible.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten