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Senate passes, and Obama will sign, anti-suicide bill to aid veterans

Members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) planted 1,892 flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March. 27, 2014. The flags represented the number of veterans and servicemembers estimated to have committed suicide so far in 2014. The VA estimates that 22 veterans from current and previous wars die by their own hand each day.

C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARISSA HORN | McClatchy Washington Bureau (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 4, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that aims to curb suicide among returning veterans.

Passed 99-0 after less than two hours of debate on the Senate floor, President Barack Obama is set to sign the bill, according to White House officials, making it the first piece of veterans legislation to pass in the new year.

Named for another but lesser-known “American sniper” who advocated for veterans’ rights, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act seeks to improve mental health services and prevent suicide in what is described as a growing epidemic among veterans.

Between 18 and 22 veterans committed suicide each day from 1999 to 2010, according to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report.

The bill would require the VA to build a one-stop website to simplify the information for mental health care services available to veterans. The agency also would audit all mental health care and suicide prevention practices to determine the most effective treatments.

“While this bill represents an important step forward to improve care for our warriors, tomorrow we must start again,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who sponsored the bill.

Hunt, a native of Houston, joined the Marines shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and was deployed to Iraq in 2007 for combat. His story is similar to that of fellow Texan Chris Kyle, a sniper whose life story became the basis for the current box office-busting and Oscar-nominated film “American Sniper.”

Hunt was honorably discharged in 2009 and transitioned to civilian life with a partial disability rating, which affected his VA compensation. He spent most of his time helping fellow soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and volunteering with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a veterans advocacy group, which pushed the suicide prevention bill through to its final bipartisan vote.

Under the pressures of post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety attacks, Hunt became a casualty of the war long after he left combat, when he committed suicide in 2011 at age 28.

“While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful know that this bill will save many lives,” said Susan Selke, Hunt’s mother, in a press release.

Besides increasing the accessibility of mental health care services to veterans, the VA would extend combat-eligibility mental health care services by one year. It also would begin a student loan repayment pilot program that is aimed to attract, conscript and retain psychiatrists.

“It’s clear we need to do more to support transitioning veterans,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation is an important step towards ensuring that our veterans can readily access mental health services that are of the highest quality.”

More than 20 veterans service organizations supported the legislation, even as it stalled in December when former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked a vote using parliamentary procedures. The bill gained major support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who introduced the bill in the Senate Tuesday.

The extension of pre-existing programs and creation of new ones are projected to cost $22 million over five years. Although this will greatly improve access for veterans, the budget is too small for Washington, said Ian de Planque, director of the legislative division in the American Legion and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

“Mental health care is something that every veteran needs access to, going back to those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, World War II and the Gulf War,” de Planque said, adding that mental health issues “affect all veterans and they need to be reached, too.”

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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