In our opinion: New bill tackles laudable effort of curbing veteran suicide

Published: Wednesday, April 30 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this file photo from June 21, 2013, U.S. Army Col. David Rabb, left, speaks a group of current and former military personnel about the stresses of combat during a presentation at the Pathway Home in Yountville, Calif. The Pathway Home is a small, non-profit organization located about 50 miles north of San Francisco in the Yountville Veterans Home. When about 22 veterans are killing themselves every day, according to estimates, Pathway has found uncommon success in improving the lives of some of the military’s veterans most afflicted by PTSD and other stress factors.

Mihir Zaveri, Associated Press

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Of the 18 Utah military personnel on active duty who died in 2013, at least 13 of them were the victims of suicide. Among military veterans living in Utah, the suicide rate is double that of the general population. The numbers are sobering. They speak to a growing need for programs on both local and national levels to better assist returning military combatants and their families.

The pressures they face are outlined in a compelling series of reports in the Deseret News. In it, a combat veteran speaks candidly about her struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. Leslie Zimmerman of Pleasant Grove, who returned from service as a battlefield medic in Iraq in 2004, recounted how she was able to overcome difficulties with the help of physicians and counselors. She has managed to build a normal life surrounded by her family.

"I have kids now, so it’s not just about me," Zimmerman told the Deseret News. "There’s things preventing me from committing suicide, but I’m not going to lie that I don’t feel like that sometimes. Some days are better than others, but my kids and my family are enough."

Many veterans have not been as fortunate in finding solace in civilian life, which is why there is a continuing need to expand outreach and assistance programs offered by the Veterans Administration and through local health agencies. One effort in Congress to emphasize such outreach is a worthy example.

The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act was introduced last month by Sen. John Walsh, D-Montana, the first Iraq war combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate. The bill addresses the need for more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, which is believed to afflict about 300,000 of the more than 2 million Americans who served combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The measure contains several meaningful initiatives, including a policy change that would extend the window in which a veteran may seek treatment for mental illness, from five years to 15 years. Supporters of the bill, which include the 270,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, argue that veterans who suffer late-onset of PTSD are often not able to obtain necessary treatment.

The bill also seeks to address a lack of qualified mental health personnel available to treat returning combatants. There are at least 1,000 open positions in the Veterans Administration for such jobs, including psychologists and psychiatric care nurses. The bill includes a pilot program that would allow students graduating in those fields to have their student loans paid back by the government if they work for the department.

Sen. Walsh is seeking a co-sponsor and bipartisan support for the measure, which it certainly deserves as recognition of the nation’s duty to help those suffering from the consequences of the duty they performed in foreign combat.

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