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The legacy of Clay Hunt: Marine recalled in new suicide legislation

Marine veteran Clay Hunt is shown here in Haiti in 2009, two years before he committed suicide. New suicide prevention introduced on Capitol Hill bears his name. (Photo released by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America)

Marine Cpl. Clay Hunt already was a survivor when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. An infantryman, he’d been wounded in the wrist by an enemy sniper in Iraq in 2007, just weeks after watching a fellow Marine sustain a mortal gunshot wound to the throat by another enemy marksman.

Hunt didn’t let his wounds in Iraq hold him back, though. He recovered, went to sniper school and then deployed with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, a unit from Twentynine Palms, Calif., that quietly deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, before the troop “surge,” and was spread across 10,000 square miles in Helmand and Farah provinces. Sixteen Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in combat, and scores were wounded. They eventually were reinforced with more troops sent from the United States.

Hunt left the Marine Corps afterward. He struggled with depression, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress but threw himself into veterans advocacy and humanitarian work, even traveling to Haiti in 2009 with other Marine veterans to help after a devastating earthquake.

Then it was over. Hunt, 28, committed suicide in Houston in 2011. Family and friends said he had been battling the Department of Veterans Affairs to get his disability rating upgraded from 30 percent, as he struggled to find employment and his marriage unraveled. He locked himself in his apartment and turned a gun on himself.

“Clay’s story details the urgency needed in addressing this issue,” Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, told the Senate during a hearing Wednesday. “Despite his proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs. Even today, we continue to hear about both individual and systemic failures by the VA to provide adequate care and address the needs of veterans.”

Hunt is remembered in new legislation taken up by the Senate. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America Veterans Act calls for independent evaluations of all mental health-care and suicide-prevention programs in VA and the Defense Department, a student loan repayment program that would offer up to $120,000 per year to recruit psychiatrists who commit to working for VA, and a program that would take back unneeded prescription drugs from patients at VA facilities.

The legislation was introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D.-W.V.).

A similar bill has been introduced in the House. Combined, they seek to address troubling statistics and stories like Hunt’s. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a report released last year by VA. In the active ranks, there were 320 suicides in 2012 and 255 in 2013, according to Defense Department statistics. There were 72 in 2012 and 86 in 2013 in reserve units, the Pentagon said.

Hunt’s case often has been cited as an example of the problems in VA, and it was mentioned again on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Selke said her son struggled to get appointments with a psychiatrist and felt like a guinea pig as a variety of medications were tried to treat his post-traumatic stress. He told her in March 2011 that he could not go back because dealing with the agency was too stressful. Two weeks later, he took his own life, she said.

“After Clay’s death, I personally went to the Houston VA medical center to retrieve his medical records, and I encountered an environment that was highly stressful,” she said. “There were large crowds, no one was at the information desk, and I had to flag down a nurse to ask directions to the medical records area. I cannot imagine how anyone dealing with mental health injuries like PTS could successfully access care in such a stressful setting without exacerbating their symptoms.”

Another mother, Valerie Pallotta, asked the Senate to put an end to the bureaucracy that veterans deal with in seeking treatment. Her son, Pfc. Joshua R. Pallotta, 25, a member of the Vermont Army National Guard, committed suicide on Sept. 23, after a four-year struggle with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress diagnosed after he watched two fellow soldiers die in Afghanistan in August 2010.

“Our spirit left the day our son died,” she said, choked up with emotion.

It isn’t clear what will happen with the Clay Hunt bill. On Wednesday, VA officials defended changes they have made to improve care but acknowledged, in response in questioning, that $5 billion included in a VA reform bill earlier this year isn’t set aside specifically to hire mental health professionals who could help in cases like Hunt’s.

Senators questioned whether the VA has done enough to curb wait times for veterans who need help. Data released recently shows that 600,000 veterans, about 10 percent of all VA patients — are still waiting a month or more to get an appointment, USA Today reported Monday.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged Congress to pass the legislation bearing Hunt’s name by the end of the year.

“Combating suicide is not just an issue that the veterans community should be concerned about,” he said. “Mental health care for veterans concerns all Americans, especially as our country continues to send troops to the Middle East. Twenty-two veterans die by suicide each day. Veterans need immediate passage now.”