Friday, October 3, 2008

Déjà vu? GOP obstructionism delays military suicide-prevention bill

Despite the steady rise in suicides among active-duty service members, congressional politics trumped an amendment to the recently passed Defense of Defense Reauthorization Bill that would have helped address this increasing problem.

Although Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was pleased with some of the measures in the bill that will help military members and their families, he was disappointed that his suicide-prevention measure, along with a measure to fix a pay glitch that shortchanged National Guard troops, were casualties of partisan politics.

“While I am glad my colleagues in the Senate have passed this important legislation, I was disappointed to hear that two fundamental measures that I pushed for were needlessly blocked by one member of the minority party,” Harkin said in a statement. “My amendment to help prevent suicide among active-duty service members and an amendment I co-signed that would have fixed a pay glitch that shortchanged many National Guard troops both fell tonight because of Republican obstructionism.

“The Army has reported that, as of the end of August, 62 soldiers have committed suicide so far this year and another 31 deaths appear to be suicides,” Harkin said in a statement. “If this pace continues, that could mean the number of suicides in 2008 would eclipse the 115 suicides recorded in 2007. These startling statistics should serve as a wake-up call that suicide among soldiers and veterans is more than a problem, it is an emergency. My amendment would have created a comprehensive suicide prevention program including annual training for all service members, improved instruction for field medics and post deployment assistance.”

The suicide-prevention amendment introduced by Harkin was one of 101 eventually scrapped by the majority party in the Senate, who feared that an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., might reframe the debate over the amendments to a debate over pork-barrel spending – something the Democrats want to avoid in election-year politics.

Another amendment co-sponsored by Harkin and left by the wayside would have retroactively reimbursed soldiers shortchanged during a bureaucratic lapse. “Currently, there are more than 600 Iowa National Guard service members who have not received their earned leave due to a delay between the announcement of a new leave program by the Department of Defense and the establishment of the program by the individual services,” Harkin said in a statement.

DeMint, employing an obstructionist tactic, introduced an amendment that would have would have given the Department of Defense authority to ignore up to $5 billion of earmarks found not in the bill, but buried in the bill's report.

This is not the first time that a suicide-prevention measure aimed at helping service members was caught in the partisan crossfire and nearly killed by GOP obstructionism.

Despite overwhelming bipartisan congressional support for the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, which was introduced by Harkin in August 2007, the measure was held up by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who put a hold on it. 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 obstructionist move drew the ire of Harkin, who was surprised by Coburn’s hold. “The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act has received intense scrutiny, including two hearings in the House and three in the Senate,” Harkin said on the Senate floor in September 2007. “The bill has been strongly endorsed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled Veterans of America, and other veterans groups. So it is a travesty to have this bill held up, now, by a single Senator for reasons that are completely bogus.”

The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill was first introduced in the House by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who named the bill after a soldier from his 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. The House bill overwhelmingly passed in March 2007 by a vote of 423 to 0.

In the Senate, however, Coburn objected to the unanimous consent request, citing concerns that veterans’ access to purchasing guns may be hindered. Harkin refuted Coburn’s claim on the Senate floor: “And his principal reason for doing so is completely baseless,” Harkin said. “He speculates that if we have mandatory screening of all veterans for suicide risk, the resulting medical data might be used to deny a veteran the right to purchase handguns. No medical professional can refer an individual to the background check system that would limit access to firearms. This can only be done through the judicial system.”

Eventually, with the help of his colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Harkin helped usher the bill through the Senate in late September 2007. Grassley took the leadership role on the Republican side and helped persuade Coburn to lift the hold, before it passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush shortly thereafter.

The fate of Harkin’s new suicide-prevention and the National Guard pay-glitch amendments remain uncertain at this point, although Harkin has vowed to keep fighting for these measures until they pass.

As he said in a recent statement: “The demise of these two common-sense amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill is unfortunate and unfair to the men and women who serve our country so courageously.”


NCCM USN(ret) said...

Suicide rate among military members is lower than that of the same demographic of the civilian community. Of course we should always do more - what pre-service issues do members prone to suicide have in common? Is there indicators we could examine prior to enlistment?

Anonymous said...

On every level.
When it hits home, local community level, disrespect for service and honor is a very bad thing that we should get involved to put a stop to.

See what is going on with the town government in Surfside Florida with officials who want to eliminate Surfside Veterans Park and the Surfside Cannon and the tribute to veterans. Mayor Burkett and Vice Mayor Weinberg and Commissioner Imberman have set out to eliminate a veterans memorial and tribute. Their plan should be rejected and they should resign.

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