The impromptu YouTube video made by Clay Hunt’s mom and stepdad last month wasn’t meant to be a tear-jerker. But it’s hard to watch the footage without being affected by the raw, emotional pain the couple shares.
Hunt, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, took his own life in 2011 after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In mid-December, a much-needed bill named after the young Texan, one that would improve veterans’ mental health care and access to it, was poised to easily clear the U.S. Senate after unanimously passing the House. Then it hit a roadblock by the name of Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican known as “Dr. No” for both his medical degree and his willingness to single-handedly kill bills through procedural gamesmanship.
The last-ditch video by Susan and Richard Selke was shot near Coburn’s office as they became aware that he had concerns about the bill’s expense, $22 million over five years, and necessity. Hoping Coburn would see the video, Selke asks the senator, as a fellow father, to reconsider.
“I know there are things in there [the bill] that might have saved Clay’s life, might have saved some other veteran’s life,’’ Selke said, clearly struggling to hold back tears. “It’s on your back. This is personal. Please, please don’t say no.”
But Coburn didn’t budge, and the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (SAV) died as the lame-duck session came to a close. Now, with the new Congress only a few weeks old and Coburn retired, the nation’s political leaders have a chance to do right by Clay’s family and the nation’s veterans and swiftly pass this critical legislation.
Parents like the Selkes shouldn’t be forced to plead for the medical care their military sons and daughters have earned. SAV is an important step to ensure that they get the care they deserve, especially the mental health treatment that modern medicine now recognizes as critical to a successful return to civilian life.
Minnesota, a state that has seen many of its young men and women serve multiple deployments, has a big stake in the legislation’s passage. It’s fitting that one of its strongest advocates is Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents southern Minnesota.
Walz, who served 24 years in the National Guard before retiring as a command sergeant major, worked with a bipartisan group of House colleagues to quickly reintroduce the legislation this year. Other key congressional champions are Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Miller is the influential chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
On Monday, SAV again easily cleared the House. It’s now awaiting action in the Senate, where Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reintroduced it this week.
McCain, a former prisoner of war who chairs the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, should brook no further delay. That the bill bogged down in the Senate last year tarnished the institution’s reputation.
Had Coburn listened to veterans, their families and top Department of Veterans Affairs officials, there would have been no question about the need for legislation, which takes modest but sensible steps to improve mental health care in the VA.
Among its proposed reforms:
• A pilot student loan repayment program to recruit and retain more psychiatrists to serve in VA medical centers, which would improve access to the care they provide.
• A new VA website to serve as a centralized place to find mental health care information and resources. That there isn’t one now, in this age of tech-savvy veterans, is shocking.
• A new “peer support and community outreach pilot program” to help veterans connect with VA mental health care.
• Annual evaluation of suicide prevention programs within the VA and the Department of Defense. After troubling scandals about delays in care at the VA, this requirement would boost accountability at this agency and spotlight what’s working and what’s not.
The legislation has broad support from veterans’ groups, including the influential Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization. The VA’s new secretary, Bob McDonald, also urged its passage last year. The legislation’s modest price tag also pales in comparison with the vast sums that have been spent on the wars Clay Hunt and other modern veterans have served in. Hunt was 28 when he died.
Susan and Richard Selke are monitoring the bill’s progress from their home in suburban Houston. The couple believe that the legislation’s reforms could have saved Clay’s life by helping him connect more quickly with VA mental health resources once he moved back to Houston. And they believe the bill’s reform would protect other families from the heartbreak they’ve endured.
They were buoyed by the House vote, but remain cautious after last year’s disappointment. When an editorial writer asked Susan Selke what she wanted to tell the Senate, she quietly answered: “I would say we’re just counting on them to do the right thing and pass this quickly so that the work can get started.”