Believe it or not, there’s a glimmer of bipartisanship in the new Republican-controlled Congress – a bill to step up efforts to prevent suicides among military veterans.
The measure passed the House 403-0 last week, zoomed through a Senate committee on Wednesday, and could very well be the first bill this session to land on President Barack Obama’s desk.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to call veteran suicides an epidemic. With so many suffering from post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more soldiers are killing themselves once they’re home than are being killed in combat. That’s unacceptable.
It’s also apparent that suicide-prevention programs require a reboot at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, still trying to overcome a scandal over waiting lists for medical care.
HR 203 – named for Clay Hunt, a 28-year-old former Marine who killed himself in 2011 – calls for a one-stop website for veterans seeking mental health services and also encourages the VA to work more closely with nonprofits. It offers to help pay the student loans of psychiatrists who join the VA. And it requires independent annual reviews of suicide-prevention programs at the VA and Defense Department.
Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the top House Democrat, and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the No. 2 House Republican, issued statements applauding the bill’s approval. “We must continue to build on the bipartisan spirit behind this transformative legislation,” Pelosi urged.
The bill is a top priority of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest group of post-9/11 vets. It delivered petitions with more than 59,000 signatures urging a Senate vote last month during the lame-duck session.
Unfortunately, one senator – Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma – managed to block a vote. He argued the bill would duplicate existing programs and objected to its $22 million price tag. The current version addresses that concern by ordering the VA to find the money within its existing budget.
The bill’s chances are much improved now that Coburn has retired from the Senate. It probably also doesn’t hurt that veterans are getting more attention these days thanks to “American Sniper.” The movie, which set box-office records last weekend and boasts six Academy Award nominations, has reignited an impassioned debate over the wisdom of the wars.
We all should be able to agree, however, that those very few people who volunteered to fight should get the help they need when they return home. Congress can help ensure that happens.