By Bryan Kim
“When my son came home he was diagnosed with severe PTSD and TBI…they put him on more than 24 medications at one time. Now, somebody with severe PTSD — there’s no possible way for them to take control of medicating themselves…my son was 90 percent disabled,” she said. I was on the phone with Janine Lutz, CEO of the Lance Corporal Janos V. Lutz Live to Tell Foundation. “I think ‘we the people’ have to fight for those who fought for us. The families need to get involved. Other mothers need to speak up like I’ve spoken up. My son wasn’t the first one to die — another mother should’ve opened her mouth. Maybe then my son would still be here.”
Her son Johnny lost his battle with combat-related PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, in January of 2013. In spite of the fact that she and thousands of others have spoken up, 22 veterans continue to die by suicide every single day. Janine has dedicated time and energy to the project of honoring them through her online PTSD Memorial Wall — hundreds of photos of veterans who’ve lost their lives in their struggle to cope with their mental anguish. Young men and women from all branches smile in their uniforms, snapshots from a better time. Families from all over America have sent her photographs and loving eulogies. Seeing them all together is a monumental and humbling experience.
Our Congress has but three working weeks left in session, but that is plenty of time to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act (HR 5059). Clay Hunt was a Marine scout sniper who was discharged honorably in April 2009 after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially given a disability rating of only 30% despite what he described as severe PTSD, he filed an appeal and fought our government for two years to get the benefits — including greater access to mental health care — he earned with his service. He was upgraded to 100 percent in April 2011, but it was too little, too late: he’d taken his life 5 weeks before the decision was made.
The American people, by pressuring Congress directly through phone calls and emails, absolutely have the ability to pass this bill before the end of the year and bring immediate relief to thousands of suffering veterans and increase accountability for suicide prevention at the Veterans Administration. The bill will improve mental health services for our veterans by:
- Reforming Discharge Review By amending the requirements for the review of discharge characterizations, up to 30,000 veterans could have their discharge statuses upgraded to reflect unfair other-than-honorable discharges caused by undiagnosed mental health issues incurred through service, allowing them to receive long overdue benefits.
- Hiring Mental Health Professionals By filling up to 1,000 vacancies at the VA through a student loan repayment program designed to recruit and retain psychiatrists and psychologists, the VA would have more personnel to better serve the influx of returning veterans.
- Increasing Accountability By establishing a yearly, third party evaluation of suicide prevention programs at the VA and authorizing a Government Accountability Office report on the transition of mental health care from the Defense Department to the VA, the bill would bring badly needed accountability and information to the public about how best to help our veterans transition to civilian life.
This bill is named for Clay Hunt, but it could be named for Johnny Lutz, or Brandy White, or Adam Thornton — any of the thousands of of America’s best and brightest who have been or should be added to the PTSD Memorial Wall. For every story collected there, a dozen go untold. The best way to honor those who’ve given the last full measure of duty is support their brothers and sisters who are still fighting their battles.
Scott Peters (D-CA52) is the only San Diego representative who has co-sponsored the bill as of Aug. 20. Wherever you live in our county, let’s make sure we send the full, bi-partisan weight of San Diego’s five representatives with this bill and do our part to make it a reality. Let them know: “they must support and co-sponsor HR 5059, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, because veterans who’ve survived the battlefield deserve to win their battle with PTSD.” We vote them into office; we’re their bosses.
“All of those warfighters gave a blank check to America,” Janine Lutz reminded me before we hung up. “They were willing to give their life. They made it home, and now we have to take care of them.”
Bryan Kim is CEO of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to put an end to political partisanship.