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DSC_0312The town of Farmland, population of under 1500, is situated smack dab in the middle of eastern Indiana.   Muncie, Indiana, home of Ball State University, is about fifteen minutes west of the small community. On August of 2009, 21-year-old National Guardsman Jacob Sexton, home on a 15-day leave from Afghanistan, drove those fifteen minutes to a Muncie movie theater and 20 minutes into the movie, took his own life with a 9mm handgun.

A number of factors have make it hard to gauge the accurate suicide rate among our veterans. It’s not what the military wants to readily admit; there has been a stigma attached to getting help; research has been sporadic, etc. The government is aware of this and I believe is now changing its attitude and is attempting to gather hard facts. According to a 2012 government report[1] on suicide among veterans, over 18% of the nation’s suicide rate from 21 states were of those having a history of military service. It was also concluded that an average of 22 veterans died from suicide in 2010.

We often look at our individual lives, with their constant but tiny gestures of good will and caring, and wonder why bother at all? “ For truly,” you ask yourself, “In this enormous world, what the hell difference will it really make what I do!?!” Be of joy, I am here to say. For it took only one small gesture – an email – to create an Act that will offer healing and comfort to millions in this country, and possibly others whose leaders will follow suit.

Senator Joe Donnelly, newly elected to the US senate in 2013, is no stranger to the ways of Washington or veterans’ issues. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms and is serving on the Committee for Armed Services. In early 2013, Donnelly talked about the need to improve efforts to prevent military suicide during an Armed Services hearing. Jeff and Barb Sexton, Jacob’s parents, believed the senator meant what he said. In an email to the senator, Jeff shared the personal story of his son’s military suicide and declared, “I’m willing to help any way I can.” To his credit, Donnelly also heard, believed, and reached out. He took Jeff up on his offer and called him.

Thus began the journey to craft legislation to help prevent military suicide: the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013. The Sexton Act will:

  • Require annual mental health assessments for all servicemembers—Active, Reserve, and Guard.  Right now, the best and most consistent screening is happening only for those within the deployment cycle which can leave non-deployed members of the Active, Reserve, and Guard components underserved.
  • Maintain strong privacy protections for servicemembers.  We must ensure that seeking help remains a sign of strength by protecting the privacy of the servicemember coming forward.  The privacy of servicemembers would be ensured by guaranteeing medical privacy protections for these mental health assessments.
  • Require a Pentagon report to evaluate existing military mental health practices and provide recommendations for improvement. This report, which is due to Congress within a year of enactment of the bill, would help identify which programs are working and which need to be fixed. A specific focus of the report will be identifying successful peer-to-peer programs that address the need for a more bottom-up approach to identifying warning signs and combating stigma in each of the Services, with the intention of future expansion.

Sen. Donnelly was quoted as stating he hopes to eliminate military suicide. “I was asked by somebody, they said, what’s your real goal?  I said my real goal is to get it to zero.”

On December 19, 2014, President Obama signed the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013 into law.

Thank you, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, for reading Jeff and Barb Sexton’s email about the loss of their 21-year old military son to suicide, and pairing up with Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi to do something the hell about it. Bravo!

For more information on the Sexton Act, visit: http://www.donnelly.senate.gov/Jacob-Sexton-Act

[1] http://www.va.gov/opa/docs/Suicide-Data-Report-2012-final.pdf