Wednesday, October 24, 2007

After Long-Fought Battle, Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill Passes

For many combat veterans returning from war, the battle doesn’t end on the battlefield. It continues at home with the mental scars. As soldiers return from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are ill-equipped to deal with emotional issues stemming from deployment, and sensing no other way out, they tragically take their own lives.

Congress, led by the tireless efforts of the Iowa delegation, has taken measures to reduce the high suicide rates among veterans. After a long-fought battle, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327) overcame its last congressional hurdle Tuesday when it passed in the House for the second time by a vote of 417-0.

Introduced by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-3rd District, the bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program addressing suicide prevention. The bill is named after Joshua Omvig, from Grundy Center, Iowa, an Iraq War veteran who served in the Army Reserve and took his own life in December 2005 after an 11-month deployment.

“I’m very pleased that both chambers have passed H.R. 327, and it’s now ready to be signed by the President,” Boswell said in a press release. “A recent article in USA Today reported that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the VA has jumped almost 70 percent in the past year. The time to act is now.”

“I commend Joshua’s parents, Randy and Ellen Omvig, who have suffered this personal tragedy, but have helped endless veterans and their families,” Boswell added. “They have advocated for improving all mental health services at the VA and have assisted countless veterans navigate the VA system.”

Although suicide rates are difficult to confirm and accurately gauge, the VA inspector general in a report last May noted that Veterans Health Administration mental health officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans.

"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans," Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, told the Associated Press. "It's a terrible statistic," he said. "As many Vietnam veterans have now committed suicide as died in the original war. That's over 58,000."

The bill, authored by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, is designed to help address PTSD among veterans by requiring the Veterans Administration to develop and implement a comprehensive veterans suicide prevention program, provide 24-hour mental health care services to veterans, and requiring that a suicide prevention counselor be available at every VA facility.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the hidden combat wound. Veterans suffering from PTSD are often the last to know they have a problem,” Rep. Bruce Braley, D-1st District, said in a statement. “In the past, many veterans returning from war have suffered silently from this illness without the help and support they need.”

“Joshua Omvig’s experience puts a human face to PTSD. His death stands as a stark reminder of the impact PTSD can have on veterans and their families,” Braley added. “Passing the Omvig bill into law is so important because veterans coming home and suffering from PTSD deserve the screening, treatment and resources they need to ensure their long term mental health.”

The bipartisan bill unanimously passed in the House March 21 by a vote of 427-0 before moving on to the Senate, where it hit a procedural snag. Led by the efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill was expected to overwhelmingly pass going into the August recess, until it hit a procedural road bump when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., put a hold on the bill, citing duplication and second amendment concerns, which Harkin said were “bogus.” Undeterred, Harkin kept fighting for the bill’s passage and solicited fellow Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to help persuade Coburn to lift the hold. Their bipartisan effort paid off, and the bill cleared the Senate hurdle Sept. 27.

Before the vote, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, delivered a speech on the House floor in support of the bill. “I rise today in strong support of the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act,” Loebsack said. “This bill was one of the first that I co-sponsored as a new Member of Congress. I did so because I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for those who have worn our country’s uniform. I urge the president to quickly sign it into law so that these vital mental health services can reach our nation’s veterans.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

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