At just 21, Jacob Sexton was a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Sexton, a National Guard specialist, was back home in Farmland, Ind., on a 15-day leave when he shot himself to death one night in a movie theater in nearby Muncie.
When he became a U.S. senator last year, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly put Sexton’s name on the first bill he introduced. That bill got subsumed into a defense appropriations bill and resulted only in a Pentagon study that came out in March.
A few days ago, Donnelly introduced the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2014. It is a more extensive version of last year’s measure and deserves to get more serious attention this time.
During the last few years, the military has been making a better effort to identify and help troubled service members. Suicide rates for active military personnel are actually down, from 522 in 2012 to 470 last year, though suicide rates for National Guardsmen and -women are rising. And I’m hearing from military leaders that many branches are seeing record numbers of suicides so far in 2014, Donnelly said in a statement introducing the bill.
As the senator noted, that doesn’t count the thousands of military veterans who take their lives each year – an estimated 22 veterans every day, according to the Department of Defense.
America owes a debt to all its service members and veterans. It has a special obligation to help those who have physical and emotional problems because of their service.
Donnelly’s new bill would ensure that all service members receive a yearly personal mental health assessment. The bill would bring officials from Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services together to focus on why mental health services for National Guardsmen apparently lag services for those in other branches of the military.
The bill would also guarantee servicemen and -women that their privacy will be respected when and after they receive treatment. No matter how well designed or funded, treatment programs will be shunned by some in the military if they have any reason to fear that their careers will be harmed if they ask for help.
The bill is expected to cost $10 million to $20 million a year, a tiny fraction of the price tags of the long wars we have asked young men and women to fight.
This is a bill that needs to be passed – for Jacob Sexton and his grieving family, for all those who serve now and have served, and for all of us who are grateful to them.