Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where is the Republican Leadership? Stalled Suicide Prevention Bill Irks Iowa Democratic Veterans

Like death itself, suicide is a nonpartisan issue, but Sen. Tom Coburn’s, R-Okla., procedural hold on a bill that would help prevent suicide among veterans has thrown a partisan cog into the congressional machine. The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill (S. 479), introduced in the House by Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-3rd District, sailed through the House in March, passing by a vote of 423-0. And now, Iowa Democratic veterans are speaking out against silence on the matter among the Republican leadership -- in particular, the GOP presidential candidates.

“This is clear bipartisan support for a bill of vital importance,” said Bob Krause, chair of the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus. “We are surprised that none of the Republican presidential candidates has publicly voiced objection to Senator Tom Coburn’s action that continues to block debate on the measure in the Senate.”

Coburn has vowed to continue his hold on the Joshua Omvig bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, before the August recess. Coburn called the bill insulting to veterans and warned that its mandatory mental-health screening could harm their future job options. "I'm going to continue to hold this bill until we work on the issues to guarantee freedoms of the veterans in terms of the tracking," Coburn said on the Senate floor.

The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill is named after a soldier from Boswell’s district in Grundy Center, Iowa, who took his own life after returning from Iraq. The bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to step up screening, counseling and other mental health services for returning war veterans by mandating this process.

“We support the efforts of Joshua Omvig’s parents, Ellen and Randy, who as they deal with the tragic loss of their son Joshua, press forward on this bill so that other American families do not endure a similar tragedy,” Krause said. “To have a single senator hold up this critical bipartisan bill with no publicly expressed outrage from the Republican presidential candidates calls into question which party truly supports the troops and military families in America. All of the leading Democratic Presidential candidates, as well as the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House, are on board. Where is the Republican leadership?”

Harkin, who served in the military during the Vietnam War, was surprised by Coburn’s hold and steadfastness and took the Senate floor to fight for his fellow veterans. “The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act has received intense scrutiny, including two hearings in the House and three in the Senate. The bill has been strongly endorsed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled Veterans of America and other veterans' groups,” Harkin said. “So it is a travesty to have this bill held up, now, by a single senator for reasons that are completely bogus.” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has also joined 30 of his senatorial colleagues in co-sponsoring the bill, including presidential candidates Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., Hillary Clinton, D-NY, Barack Obama, D-Il., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

The aim of the bill is to reduce the shocking rate of suicide among our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA estimates that more than 5,000 veterans take their lives each year. Suicide rates are 35 percent higher for Iraq veterans than for the general population. And the Department of Defense recently reported that the Army is now seeing the highest rate of suicide since the Vietnam War.

For now, the fate of the Joshua Omvig bill rests upon the shoulders of Coburn, whose hold is blocking it from a debate and subsequent passage on the Senate floor. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose father committed suicide years ago, has vowed to push this bill through by the end of the year. "We are not going to let one or two senators stop us from moving forward on this," Reid said on the Senate floor during Harkin’s plea to Coburn.

Until then, members of the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus have called upon the Republican presidential candidates to take the leadership on the bill and speak out on the campaign trial, thus removing the congressional cog from the bureaucratic machine. “Their silence exposes their shallow support-the-troops rhetoric,” Krause said. “ ‘Support the Troops’ means a lot more than ‘Support the War.’ ”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

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