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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 12:01 pm

Making good on our debt to veterans

Some politicians spend their days clamoring for war. A few, like U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, devote their best energy to helping those who paid the price for having fought.

It’s easier to grasp the ordeal a physically wounded serviceman or servicewoman has endured: We see the wheelchairs, the crutches, the artificial limbs. Donnelly is trying to see that those with the invisible wounds of mental illness also get our attention.

Mental health care is in crisis. Many don’t seek needed diagnosis and treatment; others find that specialists and resources are in short supply. Those who’ve served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and World War II have paid a special price for these shortages. In the first nine months of last year, there were 326 suicides among servicemen on active duty, in the National Guard and reserves. Year-in, year-out, veterans suffer even more of these off-the-battlefield casualties: Twenty-two suicides per day.

Last year, when Donnelly was able to get a law enacted requiring yearly mental assessments for all current military personnel, he promised to widen the focus to better mental care for veterans. 

Last week, the senator began that effort by introducing what  he called the "Servicemember and Veteran Mental Health Care Package."  The three bills it comprises would:

• Require the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to coordinate resources and policies and provide suicide-prevention training for all who care for servicemembers and veterans;  

• Provide new ways for private health providers to understand and treat mental disorders that afflict those who have seen military service; and

• Set up a pilot program to explore training of and reliance on physicians’ assistants who specialize in psychiatric medicine.

As he did in order to pass last year’s Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, Donnelly has taken steps to ensure that the new effort will be viewed as nonpartisan, lining up Republican cosponsors for all three of his new bills.

Its eminently worthwhile purpose is no guarantee that Donnelly’s mental health care package won’t be lost amid the bluster and rancor that so often prevail in Congress these days. But when America sends its sons and daughters off to fight, it makes an implicit commitment to care for their wounds, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. Amid wars and rumors of war, Congress must take time to remember the warriors and the price they’ve paid.