Jacob W. Sexton, Farmland, shot and killed himself during a movie in Muncie on Oct. 12, 2009. (Courtesy photo)
MUNCIE, IND. — Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly is entitled to invite one guest to the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
The person Donnelly chose to give the ticket to — Farmland resident Jeff Sexton — confirms that Indiana’s junior senator is serious about preventing military suicide.
Saxton’s son, Army Spc. Jacob Sexton, 21, shot himself to death in October 2009 at a Muncie movie theater, where he was watching a show with his two brothers and a friend. A veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sexton was home on a 15-day leave when he died.
“His parents are coming out for the State of the Union,” Donnelly said during a visit to The Star Press on Thursday, the newspaper reported. “We asked them to come out and be with us for it. I think they’re American heroes. His dad will watch it in the (House) chamber. I only get one ticket. His mom (Barbara) will watch it back in our offices.”
Last year, Donnelly introduced the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013.
“His parents contacted us saying they wanted to try to be of help,” Donnelly said. “This is an issue I have been working on. It’s so searing and important. In 2012, we lost 349 (active) service members to suicide and 295 in combat. So we’ve lost more to suicide than we did to combat.”
The bill would require mental health assessments to enhance detection of behaviors indicating a risk of suicide in members of the Armed Forces.
“Jacob’s story was heartbreaking,” Donnelly said. “I have spoken time and again on this issue … and his family wanted to try to solve this problem, too. We met with them at Bruner’s (Family Restaurant) here in Muncie, and they also came out to Washington. They don’t want anybody’s son or daughter to have to end their life.”
Donnelly last year introduced an amendment to require a Department of Defense assessment of new tools that could be used to better screen service members for mental health needs and suicide risk factors. A report is due in February.
The senator quoted Sexton’s father as saying he had no idea his son was having mental health problems.
“But after the funeral services, he asked some of Jacob’s military and other friends if they saw anything,” Donnelly said. “He was expecting ‘no,’ but they said, ‘Yeah, we could see in country that Jacob was changing, that he was a different guy than when he started.’”
On Thursday, Jeff Sexton recalled watching the televised confirmation hearing last year for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Donnelly is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“One of the first things out of Donnelly’s mouth was the military suicide rate, what would Hagel do about it if confirmed,” Sexton said. “That caught my attention. I emailed Donnelly not thinking I’d hear anything back. He called me the next day. After that he called me again and asked if he could submit the bill in Jacob’s name to help the troops. I told him to go ahead; I didn’t care if he made Jacob the poster boy. We’ve got to help these men and women and all veterans. After 10 years of war, it will not take two days to get over it.”
The Sextons are active in TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), which helps those grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. They have attended TAPS conferences in San Diego and in Colorado.
“It’s heartbreaking to go see all those young widows with young children,” Sexton said. “Parents is one thing, but to watch them it makes you ask why even more.”
The legislation Donnelly is backing would require the first superior officer of each member of the Armed Services to complete every year a computerized assessment on the behavior of the service person as it relates to mental health.
“The person who picks that up first is the commanding officer who sees these guys every day,” Donnelly said. “And this is not just a combat question. This happens at home as well. It’s just as prevalent for those back in the states as those serving overseas.”
More than 6,000 veterans committed suicide in 2012.
“This is a two- or three-step process,” Donnelly said of the military suicide prevention law. “Service members now get a physical assessment every year. In February, the Department of Defense will give us the results of a study as to the viability of adding mental health assessments every year.”
Research shows other risk factors, such as relationships, legal/financial issues and alcohol or drug use play a larger role than deployment history when it comes to suicide, according to the defense department’s suicide prevention office.
Sexton’s parents believe Jacob suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jeff Sexton, a truck driver, is an Army veteran. He is honored by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a State of the Union address.