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Two military suicide bills, different results: The Jacob Sexton and Clay Hunt acts

Army Spec. Jacob Sexton committed suicide in 2009 while home on leave from Afghanistan. He is the namesake of the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which was signed into law on Friday by President Obama. (Photo courtesy the office of Sen. Joe Donnelly)

Army Spec. Jacob Sexton was home on leave in October 2009 when he shot himself in the head in a movie theater in Muncie, Ind. He was on a break from a deployment to Afghanistan, and committed suicide during a showing of the horror comedy “Zombieland,” police said at the time.

The late National Guardsman is the namesake of legislation signed into law by President Obama on Friday. The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), will require annual health assessment for all service members, ensure that those seeking help have privacy and require a Pentagon report that evaluates existing military mental health practices and possible improvements.

The Sexton bill was endorsed by a variety of military and veterans organizations, including the National Guard Association of the United States, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Military Officers Association of America. But in the eyes of many, its passage should have been joined by that of another bill: the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

That bill, the subject of an earlier post on Checkpoint, had broad support in both chambers of Congress but was blocked from passage by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). He objected to it being taken up by the Senate, saying it would create a duplicative program in the Department of Veterans Affairs and add $22 million in federal spending. That’s less than the cost of a single new fighter jet.

The Hunt and Sexton bills tackle the problem from different angles. While the Sexton bill focuses primarily on suicide in the active-duty military, the Hunt bill calls for independent evaluations of all mental health-care and suicide-prevention programs in the 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 the VA, and a program that would take back unneeded prescription drugs from patients at VA facilities.

The blocking of the Hunt bill has outraged veterans groups like IAVA, which has a robust membership and active presence on Capitol Hill. But the group’s founder, Army veteran Paul Rieckhoff, also applauded the efforts of Wicker and Donnelly, saying the passage of the Sexton bill was a step in the right direction.

Donnelly, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said working on suicide prevention in the military was one of the most important things he could do. He took the issue up after joining the Senate in January 2013 following six years in the House of Representatives.

“I just wanted to make sure we were doing everything to prevent this scourge, because when it does happen it is such a heartbreak for families and everyone affected,” he said in an interview with Checkpoint. “I thought maybe I could have some impact on bringing those numbers down.”

Sexton’s father, Jeff, reached out to Donnelly after hearing him question outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the subject of military suicides during Hagel’s confirmation hearing in January 2013, Donnelly said. The specifics of the Sexton bill are designed in part to promote more communication among the friends and families of those who may have suicidal ideations, he said. At a memorial service, some of Sexton’s fellow soldiers told his father they were aware the young specialist had been struggling, Donnelly said.

Asked about the status of the Hunt bill, Donnelly said that he is favor of using the Sexton bill to help veterans however possible, and wants to work on the issue with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.), who will serve as ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee next year and has pushed for the passage of the Hunt bill.

“We’re losing 22 a day. That’s 22 too many each and every day,” Donnelly said of the number of veterans committing suicide. “We have to sit down and figure out how we can change that dynamic, and change it quickly.”