Janet's Conner

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Veterans Issues: DOING MORE TO STOP G.I. SUICIDES

Washington---A bill named after a young soldier who killed himself after returning from Iraq seeks better tracking of psychological trauma among veterans.

By: Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
August 2006

The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill, HR 5771, currently before the U.S. House of Representatives, mandates the establishment of a comprehensive screening and counseling referral program for all returning veterans the would identify and track at-risk individuals, and provide more help for those with emotional or spiritual wounds.

*The bill is sponsored by a Democrat. Let's see if J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), will allow this bill to come to the floor of the House being that he says 'no bill that is sponsored by the Democrats will reach the floor of the House, unless there is a majority of the majority (Republicans) that likes the legislation.

Spc. Joshua Omvig left Iraq on his 21st birthday, Nov. 18, 2004 after an 11 month tour. "Five days later he was having Thanksgiving dinner with us," his father Randy told United Press International in a telephone interview. "A week after that he was back at work" at his civilian job.

But his son never got over the experiences he had in Iraq. The young soldier "came back a different person," his father said.

Spc. Omvig was depressed and uncommunicative. His family encouraged him to seek counseling but he was reluctant. "He believed very strongly that if he sought help it would adversely affect his military career," said his father.

On Dec. 22, 2005, 13 months after returning from Iraq, Omvig took his own life. It would be a commonplace to say that in doing so, he became a statistic. But it also would be wrong. There are no statistics.

The figure commonly cited for veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanastan who have killed themselves is 79. But, as Omvig's family are keen to point out, that counts starts only in March 2003, and includes only those who were receiving care within the federal VA's healthcare system.

"There's Joshua and lots of others who aren't counted" because they never sought help, said his father.

And therein lies the problem.

A study published in July 2004 in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that there was likely significant under-reporting of mental health problems among returning soldiers and marines.

Of those in the study's sample who were screened positive for a mental disorder, "only 38 to 45 percent indicated an interest in receiving help, and only 23 to 40 percent reported having received professional help in the past year."

"The subjects reported important barriers to receiving mental health services, particularly the perception of stigma among those most in need of such care," concluded the study.

"Not all wounds inflected in combat are visible," said Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IOWA), one of the bill's sponsors. "A simple screening and tracking process could have provided Joshua with the counseling he needed, saving his life."

Omvig's family stress the importance of a proactive approach. "What provision there is supposed to be at the moment...it's mainly left up to the soldiers themselves or their families to diagnose," said his father.

The bill would provide suicide prevention training for all Veterans' Administration staff, contractors, and medical personnel.

"The same way swift triage care can save a soldier on the battlefield," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IOWA), "accurate diagnosis and delivery of quality mental health care can do the same once the fighting ends."

With his fellow Iowan, GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, Harkin has introduced a senate version of the bill, S 3808.

Supporters say they hope the legislation can be fitted in to the crowded legislative schedule of both chambers after the August recess.

In February 2006, there were more than 555,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanastan, just over half of them from the National Guard or Reserve.

About 168,000, or 30% of them, have so far sought help from the U.S. Dept. of VA healthcare system, which offers former troops free treatment for a wide range of ailments that might be related to their service. Of those, 168,000---almost exactly one third---had an initial diagnosis that included some form of mental illness, according to figures provided to lawmakers.

The bill would also try to engage the families of returning veterans, creating an education program to help them to understand the readjustment process of returning troops to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

"We spend a great deal of time and money training our troops to survive their deployment," said Omvig's father, "but we spend nothing when they retrun, making sure they can transition back...making sure they survive the peace."

He said the problem was especially acute for guard and reserve veterans, especially in rural areas, who might live miles from their base and even further from the nearest VA Dept's facility.

"There needs to be more outreach," he said. "They need to get out there where people are, to work with them there."

The bill would ensure 24-hour access to mental health care for veterans who are deemed at risk for suicide, including those in rural or remote locations.

Since their own tragedy, Omvig's family have found some comfort in pressing for change in the system they feel failed their son.

"We feel," Omvig's mother, Ellen, "that if some good can come out of the worst thing that ever happened to us...." but she trailed off.

"There's nothing we can do for Josh now," his father said, "but we can help others. This isn't a political thing. As Americans, we made a promise to those young men that if they went out there and risked their lives for our country, we would look after them... I don't think we are keeping that promise.