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Donnelly targets military suicides

Retooled bill to require annual screenings of all forces

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has introduced a far more extensive version of his 2013 legislation aimed at reducing military suicides.

“What we've done is try to strengthen it, make it even better,” Donnelly said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

The Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act would require yearly in-person mental health screenings for all members of the military – Reserve and National Guard units as well as active-duty personnel.

The bill also would establish a working group from the Defense and the Health and Human Services departments to recommend ways to improve mental health services for Reserve and Guard members.

“There is no one solution, there's no cure-all to prevent military suicide, but this problem is not too big to solve,” Donnelly said.

He said the military reported 522 suicides in 2012 and 470 last year.

The Indiana National Guard operates an air base and an infantry regiment in Fort Wayne. Lt. Col. Cathy Van Bree, public affairs officer for the Indiana Guard, said the Guard does not provide suicide statistics for cities or sites, but she said 19 members of the Indiana National Guard have taken their own lives since 2010.

Donnelly's bill is named for a Guardsman from Farmland, in Randolph County, who shot himself to death inside a Muncie movie theater in 2009. Jacob Sexton was a member of a Hammond-based infantry regiment and was on leave from Afghanistan when he killed himself.

Donnelly said the Sexton family has worked with his office on suicide prevention measures. The first version of his legislation would have established a pilot program to enhance the detection of suicide risks. It turned into an amendment to last year's defense authorization bill and ended up as a request for a Defense Department report, which Donnelly received in March.

Donnelly said he talked about his new bill with military officials and leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member. His legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a committee member.

“I would love to see it as a standalone bill, but if it becomes part of the defense bill, that's fine. … The most critical thing is to get it through,” Donnelly said.

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue a cost estimate for the legislation. Donnelly said it might run $10 million to $20 million over 10 years.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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