Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 commemorated on Thursday the passing of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a bill that seeks to reduce the number of veterans who commit suicide.
The Department of Veterans Affairs released a report in 2013 estimating that 22 veterans in the United States were committing suicide every day. In order to reduce that number, Blumenthal and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reintroduced the bill in January after it was blocked in December 2014. On Feb. 3, the bill was unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate, and just over a week later, it was sent to the White House for the president’s signature.
Signed by President Barack Obama last Thursday, the legislation will mandate annual third-party evaluations of the mental health care services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and enforce collaboration between the VA and non-profit mental health organizations. Further, the legislation will initiate a pilot program to assist some veteran psychiatrists in paying back their education loans. To help veterans explore the resources offered by the VA, the bill will also require the creation of a centralized website.
The bill was named after Clay Hunt, a decorated marine veteran who took his own life in 2011. According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America website, when Hunt returned home in 2009 after four years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the VA gave him a 30 percent disability rating for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He appealed his rating as too low and kept returning to the VA for more mental health care until his death in 2011. Five months after he died, his appeal was returned with a 100 percent disability rating. When Obama signed the bill Thursday, he said Hunt was “a young man who isn’t here, but should be.”
Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2014 that the VA had not adequately met the needs of her son, despite his proactive requests for help. In a Feb. 12 statement, she said she was humbled by the new legislation in honor of her son and other young veterans who have committed suicide.
“It is encouraging to know that this law, among other things, will enable the VA to evaluate all of its current suicide and mental health programs, and attract and hire more doctors and mental health care professionals to serve our veterans’ needs,” she said. “Had legislation like this existed years ago I believe Clay would be here with us today.”
On the senate floor on Feb. 3, Blumenthal said his motivation for reintroducing the bill after it was blocked in December 2014 came from 31-year-old Waterford resident Justin Eldridge, whom he had befriended before he died by suicide in 2013. When Eldridge returned from combat in 2008, he had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. According to Blumenthal, he “slipped through the cracks” of his local VA facility, not getting the treatment he needed, and he later took his life.
At a press conference on Feb. 6, Eldridge’s widow, Joanna, praised Blumenthal’s lasting acts of friendship toward her husband. She added that if the new legislation had previously been in place, her husband would have had a greater chance of survival.
“There is just a lot of sadness for a lot of us, but there’s a lot of hope too,” she said. “We just want to see other veterans get the help that they need.”
On Thursday, the president said the country had long been trying to combat post-traumatic stress among veterans, but he added he hopes the Clay Hunt Act will fill critical gaps in serving veterans with mental health issues — increasing peer support and outreach, recruiting talented psychiatrists to work with the VA and making it easier for veterans to reach out and get help.
However, Obama added that this legislation is not a complete solution. Change and reform cannot only exist in government, he said, it must also stem from community. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald will keep working to provide veterans with the care they deserve, he added.
CEO and Founder of IAVA Paul Rieckhoff echoed Obama’s sentiments, saying the act will not stop every suicide, but it can build a community of care for veterans who may be suffering.
Still, he added it was a momentous day for everyone who had worked on passing the bill, and for all veterans and their families.
“We hope this day and Clay’s legacy will inspire all Americans to join our fight and work even harder in the years ahead,” he said in an interview with the News.