Every day in America, approximately 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide. That’s 8,000 veterans dying each year.
These heart-breaking facts only underscore the mismanagement of suicide prevention resources and mental health care treatment by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, a crisis exposed to the nation though the scandal of denied and delayed care that first began at the Phoenix VA last year.
I am proud that the U.S. Senate took an important step to improve suicide prevention services for our veterans by unanimously passing the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act this week. This bipartisan legislation, which I introduced along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), will enhance existing veteran suicide programs and offer new resources to help veterans receive the support and care they so desperately need.
The legislation is named in honor of Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who committed suicide after struggling with the invisible wounds of war. Clay, a Texas native, enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 2005 and deployed to Anbar Province, near Fallujah, in January 2007. He was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head, earning him a Purple Heart. Clay recuperated at Twenty Nine Palms, California, and graduated from Marine Corps Scout Sniper School in March 2008. He redeployed to southern Afghanistan a few weeks later. His unit returned in late October of 2008 and he was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009. After returning home, Clay suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for many years and struggled with inadequate care at his local VA hospital before taking his own life. He was only 28 years old.
Clay’s story is one we hear far too often. According to a study published in the February issue of the Annals of Epidemiology, the rate of suicide among veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is about 50 percent higher than the rate among the general public. In Arizona, the rate of suicide among military veterans between 2005 and 2011 was more than double the civilian rate, according to the most recent data compiled by Arizona State University’s News21 project.
As a nation, we have a solemn responsibility to provide veterans access to the best mental health care programs available so that they can fully recover and return to civilian life here at home.
This bill will make important improvements to our existing suicide prevention programs; offer veterans more information about services available to them; provide incentives to attract top-rate psychiatrists to VA hospitals; and improve the exchange of training, best practices, and other resources among the VA and non-profit mental health care organizations. Further, it would create a community outreach pilot program to help veterans transition from active duty service, and extend the ability for certain combat veterans to enroll in the Veterans Health Administration for one year.
We have a long way to go to reduce the rate of suicide among our nation’s combat veterans. But I am confident that this legislation makes a very positive step forward in improving the care we provide to the men and women who have served and sacrificed on our behalf, and to which our nation owes the deepest debt of gratitude.
– John McCain is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona.