A senator who commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq introduced a bill Thursday to help reduce the number of veterans committing suicide by extending VA health care benefits by 10 years.
The legislation, crafted by members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was introduced on Capitol Hill by Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., followed by a rally on the National Mall.
"This is a personal issue for me," Walsh told reporters and veterans who gathered on the Mall. "I commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. When we returned home, one of my young sergeants died by suicide. So this is very personal to me."
Several other Montana veterans later committed suicide or attempted it, he said. Referencing the estimated 22 veterans who die by their own hand every day in the country, Walsh called the problem "an epidemic we cannot allow to continue."
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of IAVA, said the Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act was designed in consultation with mental health experts and other veterans organizations.
"Behind us are 1,892 flags," Rieckhoff said, one each for the veterans lost to suicide in the last year. "Our country loses 22 veterans a day to suicide. And we're here to say that's not right. We've got to stand up as Americans and take this issue on."
The new legislation "will transform the landscape of suicide, but most importantly it will provide the urgent care that these [veterans and advocates] have been fighting for, and the folks represented by the flags behind us could not get."
The bill would extend special combat eligibility for health care from five to 15 years after separating from the military. It also sets up a review process for troops with behavioral problems who may have been wrongfully discharged.
The legislation would also boost the number of mental health professionals in the Department of Veterans Affairs by repaying school loans of psychiatrists who commit to long-term service at the VA.
Walsh's bill also mandates annual reviews of VA and Defense Department care programs to make sure they're working. It also ensures mental health care professionals in the two departments receive special training to identify veterans at risk for suicide.
Two provisions, meanwhile, are aimed at DoD and VA bureaucratic problems that have had serious and sometimes deadly consequences for veterans.
One provision demands deadlines for making all DoD and VA medical records electronic. Another provision requires the two departments adopt the same drug formulary for prescription medications to also ensure that care is seamless and consistent.
IAVA is in Washington this week along with representatives from other veterans' organizations to lobby Congress for legislation to aid veterans and active-duty service members.
"This is not about Republican and Democrat. This is about uniting together, just like the veterans behind us have, to get something done," Rieckhoff told the gathering.
Tyler Tannahill, a Marine combat veteran and IAVA member from Kansas, is on his fourth "Storm the Hill" program with the organization. Recently, he lost a fellow veteran from his Marine unit to suicide.
"He was a fantastic Marine, very well respected," Tannahill said. "We actually lost him to suicide in January, so it was only a few months ago. I didn't know he was suffering. ... He was not somebody I would have thought of" as being a suicide risk.
Kim Ruocco's husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, was an AH-1 Cobra pilot who took his own life in 2005.
"My husband was not afraid of combat zones or flying into fire. But he was afraid of asking for help," said Ruocco, currently manager for Suicide Outreach and Education Programs at The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "He died of a stigma, and stigma continues to be one of our biggest battles against suicide. ... It is our time to serve [veterans]. They have earned it."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.