WASHINGTON (AP) — Marine Corps veteran Clay Hunt was just 26 when he committed suicide, following tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, told Congress Wednesday that her son reached out to the Veterans Affairs Department time and again but did not receive adequate treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. At one point, the VA even lost his medical files.
"Clay constantly voiced concerns about the care he was receiving, both in terms of the challenges he faced with scheduling appointments as well as the treatment he received, which consisted primarily of medication," Selke told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Hunt, who grew up in Houston, was wounded in Iraq in 2007 and later witnessed the deaths of fellow Marines in Afghanistan. Despite a diagnosis of combat-related depression and PTSD, Hunt received little counseling — mostly about whether the medication he was prescribed was working or not, his mother said.
After discovering that his condition prevented him from maintaining a steady job, Hunt appealed a 30-percent disability rating assigned by the VA, "only to be met with significant bureaucratic barriers, including the VA losing his files," said Selke, who lives outside Houston.
In 2011, Hunt's appeal finally was approved and he received a 100-percent disability rating — five weeks after his death.
Her son's story shows the urgency needed to address suicide prevention, Selke said.
"Not one more veteran should have to go through what Clay went through with the VA after returning home from war," she said. "Not one more parent should have to testify before a congressional committee to compel the VA to fulfill its responsibilities to those who served and sacrificed."
Valerie Pallotta of Burlington, Vermont, said her 25-year-old son Joshua, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, died of a self-inflicted wound in September. In reality, he was a casualty of war, she said.
"His death certificate should have stated the cause of death as PTSD" and traumatic brain injury, Pallotta said. "Invisible wounds nobody could heal."
Joshua Pallotta "lived with pain every single day," his mother said. "Emotional, physical and spiritual pain. What our son and his (military) brothers endured that year of deployment is something you would never wish on your worst enemy."
A bill named for Clay Hunt would require the Pentagon and VA to submit to an independent review of their suicide prevention programs.
The bill also would establish a website to provide information on mental health services available to veterans and offer financial incentives to psychiatrists who agree to work for VA for a number of years.
The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and at least five other senators. In a statement, the lawmakers called it "a shocking and unacceptable reality" that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. The suicide rate among veterans is about triple the average rate for the general population in the U.S., according to the VA.
"Our nation has a long way to go to decrease the rate of suicide among our veterans, and we must do much better in fulfilling our responsibilities to care for those who have risked everything on behalf of their fellow Americans," McCain and his colleagues said. The bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
A top VA official said the agency considers suicide prevention a top priority.
"VA recognizes that even one veteran suicide is too many. We are committed to ensuring the safety of our veterans, especially when they are in crisis," said Dr. Harold Kudler, chief mental health consultant for the Veterans Health Administration.
The number of veterans receiving specialized mental health treatment from the VA has increased each year, from 927,000 in 2006 to more than 1.4 million in 2013, Kudler said.
Suicide rates among VHA patients diagnosed with mental health or substance abuse problems declined by 28 percent from 2001 to 2010, Kudler said.
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