An Indiana National Guard member saluted the coffin of Spc. Jacob Sexton at Beech Grove Cemetery during his funeral in 2009. Sexton shot himself in a Muncie theater while he was home on a 15-day leave. (Chris Bergin / The Muncie Star Press)
If U.S. service members knew their mental health information would be kept private in medical files, more might seek help, says the Hoosier father of one serviceman who committed suicide.
In the military, said Jeff Sexton, a stigma exists about mental health problems that he hopes will lessen with the passage of a military suicide prevention act, co-authored by Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
Sexton and his wife, Barb, of Farmland, were among individuals and groups voicing support of the proposed law this morning with Donnelly at the Indiana War Memorial in Downtown Indianapolis.
The couple lost their son, Army Spc. Jacob Sexton, in 2009. The 21-year-old shot himself at a movie theater in Muncie during a 15-day leave from his Indiana National Guard unit in Afghanistan. He had also been deployed in Iraq.
"I can't say for certain, but if he had a problem and he knew he could go some place and not get harassed, he might have stepped forward," said the father during an interview Tuesday. "He probably felt if he went to a lieutenant or commander and said something, they'd think he was just trying to get out of deployment.
"This will encourage service members to seek help," said Jeff Sexton. They won't be worried their mental health records will hurt their chances to advance in the military, he added.
Keeping mental health records private is one of the provisions of the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, also co-authored by Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
"We've never had a higher need for health care for military service members," said Donnelly during the press conference.
With more young men and women returning from service, he said the need will continue to escalate in the next five and 10 years even after they have returned home.
The legislation would require annual mental health assessments of all military personnel. It would also establish a working group between the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services to improve mental health services for the National Guard and Reserve. Those service members often rely on civilian health insurance and providers.
In addition, the law would require an inter-agency report evaluating military mental health practices and recommending improvements. Donnelly said programs exist now in each branch to spot warning signals, but he wants to find out which ones work best and expand those.
"We want to give them the chance to have someone to talk to ... someone to unburden themselves to," Donnelly said during a news conference.
For two straight years, America has lost more servicemen and women to suicide than in combat. In 2013, it is estimated more than 470 service members committed suicide, compared to 118 killed in combat, Donnelly said. Early reports from Air Force and Special Operations Command leaders say they're seeing a spike in suicides so far this year, he added.
For Gregg Keesling, president of RecycleForce in Indianapolis, the time to take this step is now. His 25-year-old son Chancellor killed himself in Baghdad in 2009, two weeks into his second tour.
"The public and congressional leaders recognize how important this issue is," said Keesling on Tuesday. "Mental health is complicated and there are no easy answers, but it doesn't mean we should ignore it."
Passing this legislation would send a strong message to service members that they should seek help and will get it, he said.
Previous legislation championed by U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, of Indianapolis, resulted in soldiers getting a comprehensive mental health assessment before their first deployments, he said. But Chancellor was under suicide watch during his first deployment and that information wasn't known by his new commanders when he went back, his father said.
"As the wars are winding down and we're seeing so much of the mental health problems happening while (service members) are not in active war zones, it's important to make these mental health check-ups regular and routine," said Keesling.
The suicide prevention act is part of the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes military spending. The House and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed the NDAA last week.
The full Senate will consider it later this year, but no date has been set. Donnelly said the NDAA has passed for 52 years, so he's very hopeful his act will become law with that broader legislation this year.
Jeff Sexton knows no piece of legislation will stop military suicides altogether.
But he believes this proposal would help reduce the number as a result of the annual health assessment requirement for service members, including active, national guardsmen and reservists. They need help long-term, as problems don't always surface right away, he said.
"They come back home and everybody is happy to see them," said Sexton. "They've been gone so much and they've changed mentally. It may be a year or two before their marriage splits up. That could be the trigger to make them feel like they want to commit suicide."
Right now, the most consistent screening happens only for those within the deployment cycle, which can leave non-deployed members underserved, according to Donnelly.
The cost of the annual assessments is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be about $10 million annually.
The way Sexton sees it, though, cost shouldn't be a factor. Less than 1 percent of U.S. population has served in the military and the other 99 percent should be able to afford to take care of military veterans, so that their sons and daughters don't have to go overseas.
Supporting this legislation, said Keesling, is a way for him and other parents who have lost children for mental health reasons to honor their memories.
"All we have left is to help their battle buddies in the future," he said. "It's all we have."