The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House VA chairman to introduce bill to combat veteran suicides

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) on Thursday plans to introduce legislation to help combat veteran suicides after a hearing on access to mental health treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is scheduled to unveil the legislation at a news conference with the parents of former Marine Clay Hunt, who committed suicide in 2011 after serving two combat tours, one apiece in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An estimated 22 veterans killed themselves every day in 2010, up from 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures from the VA.

“If there is any emergency that we need to address, this is it, right now,” said Susan Selke, Clay’s mother.  “It’s not that hard to come to the right answer. We know what we need to do, we just need to do it, and do it quickly.”

Selke said Congress should enact legislation that would reduce red tape for veterans seeking mental health treatment. She said her son experienced problems with continuity of care as he transitioned from active-duty to veteran status and when he moved between states.

Clay enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2005 and deployed to Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2007. During the tour, a sniper shot him the wrist, and he returned to the United States for treatment. He then qualified as a Marine sniper scout in 2008 and served a tour in Afghanistan later that year.

Selke said her son, who was honorably discharged in 2009, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which caused him to suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, sleeping troubles, hypervigilance and survivors guilt. But she said he seemed to be coping relatively well before his suicide, having taken a job in construction, rented a new apartment and bought a new pickup truck days before taking his own life.

“By the time he actually died, we were surprised,” Selke said. “He seemed to be doing so much better. We knew it was a struggle he still dealt with, but we had no idea that was coming.”

Miller has not revealed specifics about his upcoming suicide-prevention bill, but his office said the meausure will be named the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), the first soldier to return from Iraq and become a U.S. senator, proposed legislation in March to address the same issue. His bill would extend veteran eligibility for the VA health system from five years to 15 years and provide financial incentives for psychiatrists to sign on for long-term service with the agency.

Walsh’s bill would also require the military to review discharge cases involving troops who were removed from service for behaviors relating to post-traumatic stress. Veterans in that situation can lose certain benefits for former service members.