Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Actby Senator Richard Blumenthal
Posted on 2015-02-02
BLUMENTHAL. Mr. President, I begin by thanking the chairman of
the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Senator Isakson, and really giving him
immeasurable credit for his courage and his fortitude in addressing
this bill that he could have allowed to languish on the agenda of the
Veterans' Affairs Committee. In fact, he made it the very first agenda
item--the very first issue--that we would confront on the Veterans'
Affairs Committee at our very first meeting, and it passed unanimously
through the Veterans' Affairs Committee because of his leadership--and
I really mean his leadership in making it happen.
So on behalf of the veterans of America, he deserves due credit, and so do my colleagues on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Senator Boozman and Senator Sanders, who championed this bill, along with Senator Burr.
During the last session I was pleased to argue for it on the floor in the closing days of the session, and unfortunately it failed to pass.
There is no reason to look back and try to blame others for that failure. What is important is to look forward and to give credit to both sides of the aisle--most especially to my colleague, Senator McCain, who, of course, dwarfs us in his service to our Nation in the Armed Forces. He literally is a giant in his service and sacrifice for our Nation while serving in the Navy. I have felt very privileged and proud to work with him and to introduce this measure, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act or the Clay Hunt SAV Act, as it is called, that basically provides for suicide prevention [[Page S681]] services and, even more importantly, pioneers and champions mental health care for our VA.
I thank all of our colleagues who have worked on this bill over the past year or so because this measure gives us a tremendous opportunity to set a direction for the VA and for the Senate. If I may be so bold and perhaps presumptuous, I say this measure is truly bipartisan. It provides a template for bipartisan action to help our veterans, our military men and women who serve now, and to set a real lodestar for action by this body.
Very fittingly, we are on the floor when the Democratic leader, Senator Reid has returned. I am tremendously heartened by his presence here and by the President's budget today, which provides a proposed increase in health care spending and, most especially, mental health care spending, to $7.4 billion from last year's expenditure of $6.7 billion. It is significant, again, in the context of a bipartisan approach to this issue.
This legislation is named for Clay Hunt, a marine, a patriot, a veteran who served bravely in Iraq. His mom, Susan Selke, is a real hero. She came before the Veterans' Affairs Committee during the last session.
Her testimony was not only as a patriot and an advocate of veterans but as a family member. There have been too many family members forced to grieve the loss of their loved ones who have succumbed to suicide, as did Clay Hunt in March of 2011, after struggling valiantly and courageously with post-traumatic stress and the inadequate care of his local VA hospital.
Far too many of Clay Hunt's fellow veterans, 22 per day, have succumbed to suicide, including a friend of mine, Justin Eldridge of southeastern Connecticut.
Justin braved mortar fire and sniper attacks in Afghanistan to return to southeastern Connecticut and to his family, his children, and his wife Joanna. Suffering from post-traumatic brain injury and post- traumatic stress, tragically, like so many others, Justin slipped through the cracks of his local VA facility and eventually succumbed in his fight against those inner demons and invisible wounds when he took his own life. As brave as Justin Eldridge was on the battlefield, he could not win that war at home.
How Justin and Clay fell into that black hole of depression and despair I certainly will never understand, but we grieve for them and we hope that their example of courage will inspire us to face this issue.
All too often, the response to suicide--whether it is among veterans or others--is denial. It is to turn away, to look in the other direction because sometimes it is too painful or there is stigma or shame in mental health needs.
We can conquer that stigma and shame. To its credit the military is doing more every day. The VA has raised awareness and is increasing its commitment.
This bill is a tremendous opportunity for the VA to be a pioneer and champion in mental health care, just as it has been in other areas of health care, such as amputee rehabilitation, prosthetics, and traumatic brain injury.
This bill is a downpayment. It is the beginning--not the end--of our commitment and our solutions to problems. It is a worthwhile measure to take limited, targeted steps--less than we must eventually do--to keep faith with our veterans and their mental health needs.
I hope the committee and this Congress will continue in this great, bipartisan spirit.
I look forward to a continuing partnership with my friend Senator Isakson, who is such a leader in this area, as we work on these issues and seek to make progress as quickly as possible. As we do so--remember all of our efforts from all of the years of conflict and war in this country--Senator Isakson is absolutely right that post-traumatic stress and mental health needs are hardly limited to the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I have worked hard to help veterans of the Vietnam and Korea eras. In fact, I successfully championed the needs of our veterans of earlier eras when they have been burdened by less-than-honorable discharge resulting from post-traumatic stress, from an era when post-traumatic stress was nonexistent as a diagnosis.
Post-traumatic stress was unknown for our Vietnam and Korea veterans. It was not unknown as a condition. It was not nonexistent. It was simply unknown has a diagnosis. It was not called post-traumatic stress. It may have been called shell shock or battle fatigue. But the horror, the nightmares, the cold sweats, the headaches, and the crippling mental issues have plagued many of our veterans over many eras and many wars.
Today we take a step to recognize this Nation's obligation to Justin Eldridge, to Clay Hunt, to all of our veterans and to Joanna Eldridge, Susan Selke, and to the countless family members who have struggled and borne that burden side by side when their heroes have awakened at night with the nightmares and the battles they continue to fight against post-traumatic stress, the invisible wounds, and the inner demons that have come back with them from their service.
I yield the floor.
I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.