By Congressman Chris Smith
As the former chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the author of more than a dozen laws to modernize, expand and improve the services provided by the Veterans Administration (VA), I see the need to review and evaluate existing programs to ensure that they align with the promise a grateful nation makes to those who wear and have worn the uniforms of the United States military. As President Lincoln so eloquently said at the end of the Civil War: “Let us strive…to care for him who shall have borne the battle…” a phrase later adopted as the motto of the VA.
That is why I co-sponsored and twice voted for the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act.” This bipartisan legislation is named in honor of the late Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran whose story is not unfamiliar to many who have attempted to navigate the VA’s bureaucracy to receive the care they have earned. Clay Hunt was one of the many veterans who experience some form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service, yet he did not receive adequate mental health care in the VA system and took his own life at the age of 28.
The legislation, which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate and signed into law Feb. 12, institutes department-wide reforms that will improve access to quality mental healthcare at the VA and help address the tragic suicide rate of our nation’s veterans, an epidemic I believe we as a nation have a moral obligation to work to end.
This new law will address a number of gaps in the VA’s mental health and suicide prevention efforts by: creating a community outreach pilot program to help increase awareness of and access to mental health care for veterans transitioning back to civilian life; requiring annual, independent third-party evaluations of the effectiveness of the VA’s programs and establish best practices for caring for at-risk veterans, and; addressing the VA staffing needs by implementing a pilot program for paying back the student loans of medical professionals who “demonstrate a commitment to a long-term career” of serving veterans, among other important provisions.
A 2012 study conducted by the VA estimated that 22 veterans—over 8,000 per year—are lost each day to suicide. That staggering number is more than those who have been killed in action since 9/11. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) recently published a survey of its members and found very troubling statistics: 31 percent of respondents have thought about suicide since joining the military and 47 percent know at least one veteran who has attempted suicide.
The numbers are simply unacceptable. We have a sacred duty to ensure that we do everything in our power to get our vets the physical and psychological support they need to transition back to—and integrate into—civilian life. More must be done to address the systematic failures that leave too many veterans behind and too many families with the pain and anguish of losing a loved one.
The men and women of our military make tremendous, selfless sacrifices and as a result, have physical and emotional wounds. The Clay Hunt SAV Act will give the VA tools to help them heal.
Congressman Smith, of Robbinsville, N.J. served two terms as chairman of the House Veterans’ Committee.