A group of veterans marched with American flags in hand to the Hart Senate Office Building Thursday to urge the Senate to act on a bill to prevent veteran suicides.
"Now we’re looking at December, the session is almost over and we’re trying to get this bill passed now before we have to start back at square one in January,” Kristofer Goldsmith of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told CQ Roll Call. Goldsmith, a 29-year-old Long Island native and Iraq War veteran, was among the group of veterans who rallied at the White House earlier on Thursday and then marched from Upper Senate Park to the office building. The American flags hoisted on their shoulders were visible from the Capitol.
The veterans were calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who committed suicide in 2011, to the floor of the Senate. On Nov. 19, Hunt's mother testified in front of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and pointed to problems with mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Despite [Clay's] proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs," said Hunt. "Even today, we continue to hear about both individual and systemic failures by the VA to provide adequate care and address the needs of veterans."
Last spring, revelations of waiting lists and inadequate health care at VA medical centers roiled the department, and resulted in the president appointing a new VA secretary and Congress passing reforms to the department. But the veterans on the Hill Thursday said Congress still needs to act on suicide prevention.
"We just want to make sure that they, too, understand that the cost of not doing this continues to be 22 veterans a day dying by suicide, in addition to more active duty troops tending to do the same," said Alex Nicholson, IAVA's legislative director. "We want to dare them to vote against a veteran suicide prevention bill and if so, then we’ll hold them accountable."
The bill would institute a number of reforms, including an annual third-party review of VA and Department of Defense mental health and suicide prevention programs, a website detailing mental health care services, and a pilot program to repay education loans for those who study psychiatric medicine and serve veterans.
“It’s not a final solution, it’s not the be-all-end-all, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Nicholson.
Nicholson said House leadership has already committed to bringing the bill to the floor next week, which prompted the demonstration on the Senate side and the walk to Reid's office.
Goldsmith carried the large stack of papers with 58,000 signatures calling on Congress to act on the bill to Reid's office Thursday afternoon and said the staffers who received the petitions were receptive to the veterans' cause.
"They understand it’s a major priority for us," said Goldsmith. "They didn’t make any promises to us but we’re hoping that the weight of 60,000 signatures is something that Sen. Reid can feel."
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