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Photos courtesy Sen. Joe Donnelly’s office
Jacob Sexton’s mother, Barbara, made this collage in memory of her son. It is displayed in the Pentagon.

Painful progress

Hoosier symbol of need for mental health bill

Jacob Sexton spends a quiet moment during one of his deployments. Sexton took his life while home on leave from Afghanistan in 2009.

There didn’t seem to be anything wrong when 21-year-old Jacob Sexton, a National Guardsman from Farmland, came home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan in 2009.

“It seemed like he was dealing with it pretty well,” his father, Jeff, recalled last week. The young man did not seem depressed. “He was just enjoying his time at home with family and friends.”

But only after Jacob shot himself to death in a movie theater in nearby Muncie did his parents learn that he had shown some signs of not being able to handle the things he’d seen during his latest deployment, or perhaps during a previous posting in Iraq.

“It wasn’t till Jake died and we went to Camp Atterbury,” Sexton said. “Some of the guys down there said they had seen some issues.”

Jacob Sexton cared deeply about other people. “If a friend called in the middle of the night, he’d jump out of bed and go get them,” his father said.

After his death, the family remembered that he had spoken of plans to take his combat pay to go to Goodwill and buy coats for the orphan kids he had encountered in Afghanistan. “It’s getting cold over there,” he told them.

His father is a caring person, too, enduring yet one more media interview to talk about Sen. Joe Donnelly’s bill to increase efforts to prevent military suicides.

“It’s painful to talk about and to keep going over it,” Sexton said. “But if it saves one life, it’s worth it.”

The odds now are good that the Jacob Sexton Act will indeed contribute to saving lives. A first version of the bill had been sidelined into a study last year. Donnelly incorporated the study’s findings, strengthening the bill, and reintroduced it this month. Thursday afternoon, the senator called Jeff Sexton to tell him that the Senate Armed Services Committee had unanimously voted to include the measure in the Defense Appropriation Act. The committee, which Donnelly serves on, sent the defense act on to the full Senate.

From here on, things look good. A lot of Congress’ work gets bottled up these days, but the defense act has been passed and signed into law every year since 1972.

The Jacob Sexton portion of the larger bill would put into place what Donnelly calls “common-sense steps we can take to help our service members before it’s too late.” The bill addresses the privacy concerns that now discourage many servicemen and -women from asking for help and may lead compatriots or superiors who suspect a problem to keep quiet about their concerns. It also requires the military to assess peer-to-peer training programs that could have taught those around a serviceman like Sexton, who seemed to be struggling emotionally, how to help.

The act would require all service members to receive a personal mental health evaluation every year.

It also would force defense and health officials to take a special look at mental health treatment for members of the National Guard and Reserve, where some members rely on private health insurance. Though military suicides have dropped as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have wound down, suicides in the National Guard reached an all-time high in 2013.

The bill does not directly address an even larger, continuing tragedy. Each day, more than 20 veterans kill themselves. Donnelly plans to take on that issue later.

But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the Jacob Sexton Act. “What this will mean is that we’ll be able to take better care of our troops,” Donnelly said in a telephone interview Thursday after the Armed Services vote. “I hope that the tragedy that happened to Jacob will at least help some other young men.”

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.