The Suicide Crisis of our Veterans is Heartbreaking

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Clay Hunt grew up in Houston, TX. He was friendly, a good athlete, and the girls really liked

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the nice-looking young man. He was a team sports type guy, especially baseball and football. After finishing high school Hunt started college, but in 2005 decided he wanted to be a Marine instead. His test scores were so good he could have been an officer. Being the team player that Clay was, he declined. He was happy to be infantry.

Hunt was sent to Iraq. A few weeks into his tour his bunkmate and good friend was killed by a roadside bomb. Hunt took it very hard. He slept in the young man’s bunk just to feel close to him. A few weeks later while out on patrol Clay was driving a Humvee. His friend was walking alongside the Humvee when a sniper shot him through the throat. Clay had to stay in his Humvee unable to help his friend due to being pinned down by sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades. They could not save his friend, who died on the medevac helicopter. Hunt’s mom (Susan Selke) said there was a change in her son the next time she talked to him. “Clay was very distraught that he couldn’t get out of the Humvee to help. He was very shaken, and it was obvious that the innocence was gone”. (Goodwyn) Hunt wrote about it, saying it was “a scene that plays on repeat in my head nearly every day, and most nights as well.”

Three weeks later while out on foot patrol he came under sniper fire. He was shot through the wrist, missing his head by inches. His parents tell that Clay flew to Germany the next day, accompanying a fellow Marine who had been shot in both legs. Clay then went to California to recover. While there he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He decided to go to Scout Sniper School, the most demanding training the Marines have, with his fellow Marine and friend Jake Wood.

They were soon sent to Afghanistan, among some of the first Americans deployed to the Helmand valley in 2007. “We were there without air support, without tanks, without artillery. And we were surrounded by Taliban.” Said Jake Wood. (Goodwyn) After finishing what Hunt referred to as a nasty tour of death he was honorably discharged as a decorated Marine. He received a Purple Heart from his sniper shot in Iraq.

Clay got married and went to Loyola Marrymount University in L.A. Because his benefits were late in coming, he ended up with a lot of debt. At this time he also became frustrated with the Veterans Affairs due to mishandling of his disability claims. His two-year marriage was over, he left college. He was seeking help for his depression and stress from the VA. He also suffered panic attacks and some memory loss, even having suicidal thoughts. He saw many doctors exclusively at the VA. Clay was not ashamed of his mental health issues, as the Marines taught that there was nothing to be ashamed of. He knew that there were many vets like him suffering from PTSD.

Clay was given a 30 percent disability rating. When he realized that PTSD was keeping him from holding a job down he appealed the 30 percent rating only to be met with significant bureaucratic barriers, including the VA losing his files, according to IAVA.org. Clay decided to return to Texas to be close to family.

Clay became very involved in humanitarian work and veteran’s advocacy. Hunt along with fellow Marine and best friend Jake Wood helped start a group called Rubicon. He and fellow veterans went to help in Haiti after the earthquake. A month later they went to Chile to help there. That is why Rubicon got started. Veterans wanting to help, getting together to help, keeping active, feeling wanted and needed. Continuing to serve without being in uniform was Hunt’s belief in this work. While in California Clay joined the group Ride2Recovery, a biking group for wounded veterans. He kept busy by helping to build bikes and going on long rides with the club. After his move back to Texas he continued to meet with the group and go on their rides.

Part of a campaign by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, (IAVA), Hunt appeared in a video ad to help soldiers ease their transition to civilian life from combat, letting Veterans know they weren’t alone and to seek support

“You fight for your country, then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised,” Hunt told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I can track my pizza from Pizza Hut on my BlackBerry, but the VA can’t find my claim for four months.” (Shapiro)

By spring of 2011 he had a new girlfriend, found a job, got an apartment and even bought a new truck. “He turned his life around. Four days prior to his death he is holding his brand-new baby niece. He bought a new truck. He was so excited. He was preparing to go on Ride 2 Recovery the following weekend. And days later it’s over.” said his father, Stacy Hunt. (Vercammen)

Suddenly silence. He wasn’t returning calls or answering text messages. Hunt had locked himself in his apartment and shot himself.

Mrs. Selke, Clay’s mother, told about Clay going to the Houston VA to see a psychiatrist and having to wait months to be seen. After his first appointment, Clay called his mom on the way back home and said, “Mom, I can’t go back there. The VA is way too stressful and not a place I can go to.” Clay took his life two weeks later. (IAVA.org)

His friend Wood said, “I was surprised but not shocked.” The family doesn’t blame anyone, but Woods believes the Government isn’t doing enough. “I think our government needs to re-evaluate what they’re doing when they make warriors with such ease and send them to combat zones and then really don’t have a plan to transition them when they come home. I think there needs to be a discussion at the top levels of government because it’s a growing problem.” (Goodwyn)

Clay’s mother says she is proud of her son. “We choose to look at it that he is now in a very peaceful state, in a very peaceful place, and we’re thankful for that. And we’re going to miss him terribly,” she says. (Goodwyn) Clay was cremated and his ashes spread on his grandparent’s ranch.

Wood said his best friend suffered from various levels of PTSD and depression. He also stresses that Hunt was self-aware, actively seeking help to rid himself of the war demons. “He was looking for it,” Wood said. “And so that makes it more tragic. He couldn’t fight it any longer. And that is just crazy. Because there are a lot of people who are a lot less well-adjusted out there, and they are not getting the help they need.” (Vercammen)

Selke believes her son also suffered from extreme survivor’s guilt. “In my mind, he is a casualty of war,” she said. “But he died here instead of over there. He died as a result of his war experience. There is no doubt in my mind.” (Vercammen)

The family believes that more information is needed on PTSD – Early detection; how it can be treated? How do we eliminate people’s fear from social stigma? Hunt was worried about having PTSD in his records, believing it could affect his job opportunities.

Wood fired off a final volley. “We owe too much to the men and women who have gone over to serve to just ferry them out the door after four years or eight years and say, ‘Here’s how you write a resume. Go get a job and check in, in a couple of years.’” (Vercammen)

Hunt’s death has made those who knew him question why someone doing all the correct things to help with his combat-related issues could now be dead. Matthew Pelak, an Iraq veteran who worked in Haiti with Hunt said, “We know we have a problem with vets’ suicides, but this was really a slap in the face.”

Although Hunt suffered with PTSD and depression friends and family say he was full of energy and had many friends. He presented an appearance of someone who knew how to live his life after combat. Wood said “I think everybody saw him as the guy that was battling it, but winning the battle every day.”

After word of Hunt’s death, workers from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors met in Washington with visiting veterans and the nonprofit group, IAVA. Who were in Washington doing their annual lobbying. Hunt had been a part of this group a year earlier, trying to get improvement for veteran’s disability claims process. This sad story pushed IAVA to urge Congress to do something, bringing to light how serious these issues are to veterans.

There have been questions from Senators if the VA has done enough regarding wait times for veterans. Data at that time show that 600,000 veterans wait over a month to get an appointment.

The founder of IAVA, Paul Rieckhoff, has asked Congress to pass new legislation that bears Hunt’s name looking for an end to the bureaucracy with veterans seeking treatment.

A new bill was introduced, Senator John McCain being one of the leaders. This new legislation wants to tackle some troubling statistics. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Hunt’s case is being used as an example of the many problems with the VA. Hunt’s mother said there were many struggles he went through with the VA. He often said he felt like a guinea pig with regards to medication. If one didn’t work, they would put him on something else. Clay often had problems getting psychiatrist appointments or issues with them being kept or his files getting lost. His treatment was mainly medication only. Counseling was used only for med management.

“After Clay’s death, I personally went to the Houston VA medical center to retrieve his medical records, and I encountered an environment that was highly stressful,” his mother said. “There were large crowds, no one was at the information desk, and I had to flag down a nurse to ask directions to the medical records area. I cannot imagine how anyone dealing with mental health injuries like PTSD could successfully access care in such a stressful setting without exacerbating their symptoms.” (Lamothe)

Clay’s parents testified, urging Congress to pass the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. They stated that while in service Clay received care for his PTSD but after he got out and went to the VA it all went downhill.

Developed by IAVA and allies on Capital Hill the proposed act will address ways to help our veterans who are suffering from PTSD, depression and other mental health issues. It also addresses the VA and its need for better mental health care along with programs for suicide prevention. It is designed in the following ways to work with expanding programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

  •  Increase access to mental health care by, among other things, creating a peer support and community outreach pilot program to assist transitioning servicemembers.
  •  Requires the VA to create one-stop interactive website to serve as a centralized information source regarding all mental health services for veterans.
  •  Take steps to address the shortage of mental health care professionals by authorizing the VA to conduct a student loan repayment pilot program aimed at recruiting and retaining psychiatrists.
  •  Require collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations.
  •  Boost the accountability of mental health care by requiring an annual evaluation of VA mental health and suicide prevention programs.

This bill was held up by one Senator for financial reasons in 2014; eventually the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House and was signed by President Obama on Feb 12, 2015.

In the first year since the Act was signed here are some of what has happened according to a report from NAMI.org

  •  The “MyVA” initiative was started. It is meant to build on a model to involve the VA in collaborative efforts with other organizations, such as NAMI, in suicide prevention.
  •  The VA expanded and improved its Veterans Crisis Line. Nearly 490,000 calls have been answered since the Clay Hunt SAV Act was passed.
  •  Referrals to Suicide Prevention Coordinators have increased. Approximately 80,000 referrals made to crisis-line counselors were made in 2015.
  •  Crisis-Line counselors have dispatched emergency responders to callers in crisis over 11,000 times last year.
  • The average wait time for mental health appointments is now just three days.
  •  Last year the VA began a landmark study on the use of lithium to treat patients at risk of suicide. With 30 VA facilities participating, the study will be one of the largest medication’s trials for suicide prevention.

There are studies still being looked at for other therapies, genetic contributions to depression, and medications. Some good starts have been made but there is still more work needed. Pilot programs and website are still not developed well. Some reports lately still have veterans at a high suicide risk. Support is still needed for the combat to civilian life transition.

In the second year since the Act was signed these are some of the updates according to IAVA.org

  • There has been slow but steady development in establishing a third-party evaluation for mental health and suicide programs. Kinks are still being worked out, with intent to expand the process to all programs at VA. So, no outcomes to report yet. Focus has been establishing the process and collecting the data.
  • To improve access to VA online resources a website has been established as a service locater for mental health services. Users type in their zip code and type of needed provider and a provider will be located. The VA is continuing to expand the types of resources being located using this site.
  • Establishing the program for the student loan payback program has taken longer than hoped but the good news is the VA finally has authority to do this. Bad news though is allocating funding has slowed the start. Because the SAV act did not allocate additional funds, VA has had to move money around to ensure the implementation of this. The VA plans to see the first pay outs in Jan 2018.
  • There have been a few conflicting reports about the success of the pilot programs for community peer support. The VA is still being pressed about the concerns. 5 locations were selected to run pilot programs to establish veteran peer support programs. These programs are still in the process of being set up. With the pilots ending in Jan of 2019 there is an expected outcome data to be able to judge success.
  • Prior to the SAV act, the VA was pursuing partnering with community organizations for suicide prevention. There are now over 150 partners. Now the question is are these successful and how is it being measured.

The biggest challenge for the VA has been finding the funds to help meet these items of legislation. IAVA can see where some areas have been more successful. There is a commitment to doing everything to meet the legislation intent while continuing to fight for more changes that the veteran community is still facing regarding suicides.

2018, 3 years since the signing of the SAV act most actions remain the same, with a few updates as stated in an IAVA report:

  • The third-party evaluation report is expected in a few months. This will provide feedback from veterans who receive care at the VA. The interim report from 2017 showed that most veterans were happy with their VA mental health care.
  • The loan payback program has been the hardest and slowest moving of all. Lack of funds has made it hard to get the program off the ground. However, VA has said that the next round of applicants will be eligible for this program. There is still a concern about the number of mental health providers at VA and available to veterans in need of support; it is believed this provision will aid in ensuring veterans have access to the mental health support they need.
  • There has been some exciting news about the peer support programs. In March a funding bill from congress provided $10 million to these previously unfunded pilot programs. 10 from 5 programs were expanded, including a few highly rural sites. A final report is due to Congress by end of year.

As these updates provided by IAVA show, it can take time to make changes. Pilot programs take time to get results. Although we wish to see results quickly sadly these programs need time to get started, get funded, see results, make changes for these results to be able to make a difference.

The suicide crisis our veterans are facing is heartbreaking. To go to the VA and be unable to get the help needed due to under staffing and large amounts of fellow veterans needing the same help can seem like a daunting issue.

There has been great progress in suicide prevention and mental health care since the Clay Hunt SAV Act was passed in 2015. Although the work is not done with 46 percent of IAVA members reporting service-connected PTSD and the VA reports that 18-34-year-old veterans have the highest suicide rate, there is still much to do.

Five weeks after Clay took his life and 18 months after filing an appeal with the VA for his PTSD rating, Clay’s appeal finally went through. The VA rated his PTSD 100 percent.

Bibliography

  1. Goodwyn, W. (2011). One Marine’s Journey: War, Activism, Then Tragedy. NPR.org
  2. Herrera-Yee, I. (2016, Feb 12). Clay Hunt Act serves to Prevent Veteran Suicide. NAMI.org.
  3. Jackie Maffucci, P. (2017, November 15). Campaign to Combat Suicide Clay Hunt SAV Act Update. IAVA.org.
  4. Kuhnhenn, J. (n.d.). Obama signs Clay Hunt suicide prevention Act. Retrieved 11 4, 2018, from The Military Times: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/benefits/health-care/2015/02/12/obama-signs-clay-hunt-veterans-suicide-prevention-bill/23306179/
  5. Lamothe, D. (2014, November 19). The Legacy of Clay Hunt, Marine, recalled in new suicide legislation. Washington Post.
  6. Mullen, S. (2018, October 24). Clay Hunt SAV Act Update. IAVA.
  7. Shapiro, T. R. (2011, April 17). Clay W. Hunt, veterans’ advocate, dead of self-inflicted wound. Washington Post.
  8. The Clay Hunt SAV Act. (n.d.). IAVA.
  9. Vercammen, P. (2011, April 15). California Marine Suicide. CNN.com.
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The Suicide Crisis of Our Veterans Is Heartbreaking. (2022, Feb 07). Retrieved January 27, 2023 , from
https://studydriver.com/the-suicide-crisis-of-our-veterans-is-heartbreaking/

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