February 04, 2015

Improving mental health care for W.Va. veterans | Logan Banner

As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and as a proud defender of West Virginia’s nearly 168,000 brave veterans, I am so pleased that this week Congress passed critical veteran health care legislation – The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. Its passage takes a momentous stride toward making sure our veterans in West Virginia and across America receive the absolute best mental health care when they return home from war. As an original co-sponsor of the bill and as a strong advocate to making sure our veterans have access to the best available care and resources, I hope that the President signs this bill into law without delay.

The legislation was named after an exceptional veteran, Clay W. Hunt. Hunt was a native of Texas, but his story resonates with many West Virginia veterans. He was a passionate young man eager to serve his country. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2005 and served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he earned a Purple Heart after being shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet, only narrowly missing his head. Like many veterans, Clay Hunt’s service did not end when he was honorably discharged in 2009. Upon returning home, he became a strong and exemplary voice for veterans who suffered depression and post-traumatic mental health issues, and he pursued humanitarian work in Haiti alongside other veterans.

While Clay Hunt selflessly helped his fellow veterans overcome their issues after separating from military service, he struggled himself with guilt, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2011, he ended his own life at the age of 28.

The story of the courageous life and the tragic death of Clay Hunt is one that is told far too often in this country and in West Virginia. In fact, the VA Suicide Data Report estimates 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That is one veteran for every five suicide victims. These deaths are startling. They are tragic. They are unacceptable. And they are preventable. Our veterans truly deserve better, and it is our honor and our duty as Americans to care for the brave men and women who have risked their lives for our freedoms.

That is why I am so pleased to do my part to make veteran health services and medical care a top priority in this Congress. The Clay Hunt SAV Act, which was crafted with the support and guidance of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) organization, will significantly improve the way we provide resources, support, healthcare, and other benefits to our military service members and their families, along with all of our veterans. It will increase crucial access to mental health care, offering initiatives such as peer support groups. It will also provide a transparent listing of available resources to our veterans by requiring the VA to post online a list of all offices, staff, and locations that have access to mental health care close to each veteran. It will also create a pilot loan repayment program for VA psychiatrists and improve existing VA psychiatric practices by collaborating with non-profit mental health organizations. In addition, it will help the VA meet its high demand for mental health care by requiring an annual evaluation of VA suicide-prevention programs.

Our nation has a long way to go to make sure every veteran has adequate access to mental health care. We can do a lot better when it comes to fulfilling our responsibilities to care for our heroes who have sacrificed so much in order to protect our freedoms and our safety, but this legislation is a significant first step. Our brave veterans and service members defend our lives every day, and that is why I am so proud that Congress overwhelmingly passed The Clay Hunt SAV Act. May God bless our veterans and those who are currently serving our nation at home and abroad.

By:  Joe Manchin