Since 1999, 22 veterans have committed suicide every day in the U.S., according to the office of Sen. John Walsh (D-Mo.).
In response, the senator introduced The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act on March 27 to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where it currently remains.
This is a very personal issue for him, because one of the corporals who deployed to Iraq with now-Sen. Walsh died by suicide when they returned from combat.
A supporter of the bill, Jason Sydoriak, served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Sydoriak is the president of the student veterans at CSU and went to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the bill alongside 30 other veterans.
Walsh, a sponsor of the bill, is the first Iraq combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate. He led an infantry battalion in Iraq, and one of his corporals died by suicide after returning home.
Sydoriak represented the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest not-for-profit, non-partisan organization lobbying for veteran rights.
“(We’d) tell them what we want. Some of us have some stories — people that either have dealt with suicide themselves (or) know someone who has died by suicide,” Sydoriak said.
One of the main provisions of the bill includes extending the free health care coverage for veterans receive coming out of the military from five to 15 years. This would give veterans more time to determine whether or not they have symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, depression or anything else.
Nick McCormick, a legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was one of the people responsible for writing the bill.
“We do the largest survey of Iraq and Afghanistan vets outside the government and from the feedback we got from that survey this year, the top concern we had was suicide and other provisional mental health issues … (so) we took a look at the suicide and mental health legislation pending before Congress,” McCormick said. “There were a lot of stand-alone bills that tackled a lot of different issues, and so based upon that, we just decided the best way to go forward was to package all these ideas in a comprehensive piece of legislation that addresses a few different things.”
“This is a very personal issue for him,” a representative from Walsh’s office said. “The senator views it as a non-partisan issue because all Americans should be committed to taking care of our veterans right now. It’s just Sen. Walsh sponsoring it with a handful of other democrats but he has ongoing conversations with other Republican members to ask them to support the legislation.”
At least 20 percent of the 2.3 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 0r 23,000, “known to have PTSD and or depression,” according to studies from the Congressional Research Service and other veterans organizations. Fifty percent of those with PTSD don’t seek treatment –– minimally adequate treatment is given to the half that do seek treatment.
Other provisions of the bill include providing a chance for former military members who had to forfeit their benefits because they were discharged dishonorably — or other than honorably — to be re-evaluated, Sydoriak said. Their discharge status could be a consequence of some form of mental distress from their time in the military.
“(The bill) determines what are the best practices, consolidating them and then administering them within the VA and the DOD,” Sydoriak said. “(The bill will) create incentives within the VA to call in providers to work with (veterans) in areas that don’t necessarily have a lot of providers.”
McCormick has been tracking the bill closely and said he hopes for its future, despite problems he foresees getting it through senate.
“It has been very hard to get anything passed in congress these days. Each member of the senate has worked really hard to get floor time for each of their pieces of legislation. With specific respect to this bill, honestly right now, it’s too soon to tell if there’s going to be one or two members that will threaten derailment,” McCormick said. “There is a hearing in the works for the senators of this bill to take a look at it along with many others and at that point in time we will have a better sense as to which members of the committee will potentially, wholeheartedly endorse it or potentially oppose it.”
McCormick said this bill is a bipartisan issue.
“A lot of (senators) are really receptive of the idea. Some of them are really concerned for the cost, but you can’t really put value on 22 veterans dying a day of suicide,” Sydoriak said. “We’re also calling on the president for an executive order (to be signed) on or before Memorial Day that will issue a Call to Action to make this a priority.”
If the bill doesn’t pass, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran advocacy group stated it was ready to campaign on the issue for the remainder of the year.
Thoughts on this and other causes can be sent to Walsh via his senate webpage.
Progress of SPAVA can be tracked at opencongress.org.
Collegian Military Beat Reporter Scott Fromberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.