Senate to pass first vets bill of 2015 honoring Texas sniper Clay Hunt

With the recent box office success of the film “American Sniper,” featuring the late Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the national conversation about veterans’ issues has been elevated significantly. The film has stimulated broad discussion in the military and veterans’ communities, in the media and in communities across the country regarding the needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans after returning from war. The film features the multiple combat tours of Kyle from the perspective of a U.S. military sniper’s direct on-the-ground wartime experience.

The U.S. Senate this week is scheduled to vote and pass the first veterans’ legislation in the new 114th Congress, which honors another combat-veteran sniper from Texas, Clay Hunt. The timing of this vote to honor Hunt is fitting, as the nation refocuses on the needs of Iraq War veterans after 10 years of conflict amid public discourse surrounding the nation’s reaction to the film.

{mosads}Hunt, a Marine who in 2007 had served in Anbar Province, could not escape the battlefield he left behind after combat and became one of the 22 veterans a day who we tragically lose to suicide in this country. Hunt was also a veteran that gave his time and effort out of uniform to help fellow vets. That is what the legislation in his honor will also do — help other veterans overcome their mental and psychological struggles after war.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act is a combined effort of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and allied veterans’ groups over the past year. This critical legislation — informed and influenced directly by many veterans’ personal experiences — is designed to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health support services and reduce the tragic number of veteran suicides. The law was specifically crafted considering the growing unique needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans within the VA and based on valuable data captured within IAVA’s annual membership surveys.

Veterans’ long-term mental and physical well-being will depend on many factors, of which local, state, federal and private-sector efforts will be needed for decades to come. The SAV Act is needed to lead this process and produce a strong start for which to base future mental health initiatives. This bill’s implementation will allow the VA and veteran stakeholders to more clearly identify which strategies are succeeding in improving veterans’ mental health outcomes. The peer support models, psychiatric workforce enhancement incentives and healthcare access provisions are just a few of many improvements which will be directed to take place at the VA as a result of the passage of this bill.

Lawmakers who led the fight to address the veterans’ suicide issue last year, including Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), quickly jumped back to work on this bipartisan bill immediately in 2015 in concert with House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). In the Senate, Republican John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Democrat Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) have been leading the charge on the bill and have been successful in expediting consideration of this critical legislation as one of the first orders of business in the new Congress.

Last month, IAVA Members from across the country participated in advocacy initiatives urging Congress to pass the SAV Act. I, like many of the veterans who joined in these actions, have personally known fellow veterans lost to suicide. There is an urgency to putting these reforms in place for us, and further reforms, advocacy and prevention efforts must continue to remain a focus of Congress, the VA and the communities to which veterans return after military service.

The Senate is now in a position to show the public its unified dedication to improving veterans’ mental healthcare by passing this bill. The Senate’s quick action will ensure the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act is the first veterans’ bill signed by President Obama in the 114th Congress.

Neiweem is a legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). He spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserve as a military police non-commissioned officer and served an honorable tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom detaining enemy prisoners of war and performing base security and customs in 2003 during the Iraq War.

Tags Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act Department of Veterans Affairs Jeff Miller John McCain Richard Blumenthal SAV Act Tammy Duckworth Tim Walz VA Veterans

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