President Obama Signs Lifesaving Bill for Veterans [UPDATED]

More veterans have killed themselves after serving on the battlefield than were killed in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

(Photo: Mile Ahmt/Getty Images)

Feb 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and foreign affairs for USA Today, The Huffington Post and AOL News, reporting from 47 states and 26 countries. She helped launch Al Jazeera America's website and now writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other outlets.

UPDATED Feb. 12, 2015

President Barack Obama has signed a bill to curb the epidemic of suicides among America's war veterans. It was passed unanimously by the Senate last week.

WASHINGTON—Chris Neiweem looked at the 22 miniature flags on the podium that represented the number of military veterans who die each day by suicide. He’s known a few of those victims himself.

“It’s invisible,” said Neiweem, 32, a former Army Reserve military police sergeant who served in Iraq and now works as a veterans advocate. “You can’t visibly see post-traumatic stress disorder. You can see the symptoms of it, but sometimes it's too late when you see these issues.”

Neiweem spoke at a news conference on the eve of Tuesday’s 99–0 vote by the Senate to do something about an epidemic of suicides among veterans. About 8,000 die by their own hand each year—more than were killed in all the fighting since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. The rare, unanimous approval of the bill in a hotly partisan Congress could be a further indicator of how desperately needed the legislation is.

The vote on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, known as the SAV Act, had been scheduled for Monday to coincide with “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas, which honors the late sharpshooter whose story is told in the wildly successful and controversial movie American Sniper. But winter weather delayed many lawmakers, and the vote was put off until the full Senate could be present.

The legislation is named for Clay Hunt, a decorated Marine sniper and veterans advocate who died in 2011, at 28, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2007, Hunt was shot in the wrist in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart. Yet his more grievous wounds came from witnessing many of his fellow Marines die in combat. After leaving the Marines, he struggled with post-traumatic stress and depression. His marriage fell apart. He was unable to find work. He suffered panic attacks. Despite it all, though, he devoted himself to helping other veterans by lobbying Congress on their behalf.

Years later, Congress has finally acted on the broader problem at hand. Hunt’s namesake act will take on major issues plaguing our military personnel, who go to boot camp to prepare for war but get little guidance on how to readjust to civilian life or cope with the scars of battle. The new legislation will, in part, establish a peer-support and community-outreach pilot program to help service members who are coming home access mental health services and acclimate to life in the States.

“Our nation’s heroes come back from service all too often with invisible wounds of war that they cannot overcome simply because our nation fails them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, a cosponsor of the bill, said in a news conference on Monday. “This bill is a first step, a significant first step but only a first step, toward meeting their mental health needs that will enable them to overcome those inner demons that all too often overcome them.”

The act will also

  • Authorize a pilot program to repay student loans of psychiatry students who agree to serve in the VA to alleviate a shortage of mental health care professionals;
  • Require annual evaluations of Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention programs to weed out ineffective ones and speed their replacement;
  • Create a one-stop, interactive website listing mental health services available to veterans; and
  • Extend eligibility for mental health care services for one year to combat veterans who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.

The bipartisan bill could have passed in the last Congress but died after outgoing Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, put a hold on it. He objected to its $22 million cost—less than the price of one military jet fighter—and said it replicated existing veterans programs. It's estimated it will cost about $24 million in its current iteration.

It was quickly reintroduced in the new Congress and fast-tracked to passage, with the House of Representatives voting unanimously to pass it on Jan. 12.

The next day, Blumenthal and Republican John McCain of Arizona reintroduced it in the Senate, and that chamber’s Committee on Veterans Affairs gave it the swift thumbs-up to set the stage for Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is one of the first accomplishments of the 114th Congress. It now goes to President Obama, who is expected to quickly sign it into law.

"This no-nonsense bill not only will help save lives but also will honor the obligation the government made to our veterans when they put on the uniform,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which led the effort to pass the measure.