WASHINGTON — Afghanistan war veteran Rep. Brian Mast wants all service members leaving the ranks to take an oath to continue taking care of themselves and their fellow troops, as a way to stem suicides among veterans.
The proposal — which Mast hopes will be added to the annual defense authorization bill during floor debate next week — would establish an "Oath of Exit" for troops committing them to "continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms and a protector of the United States and the Constitution."
Taking the oath would be voluntary, not a requirement for honorable discharge. Mast said he believes most service members will view the oath "not as an imposition but as a promise that they are bound to fulfill."
His proposed language would have separating service members pledge "to preserve the values I have learned, to maintain my body and my mind, and to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first."
Mast, R-Fla., worked as an Army bomb disposal expert under Joint Special Operations Command during his deployment to Afghanistan. He lost both of his legs in September 2010 clearing improvised explosive devices outside Kandahar.
The oath also acknowledges the small number of Americans who make up the Armed Forces today. Mast said that puts extra responsibilities on him and his colleagues.
"As veterans, we have a unique shared experience, and as a result, we know how to look out for each other and what warning signs to look for," he said. "It’s important that we take care of each other.
"And I know from my experience serving with some of the greatest men and women that if we say we’ll look out for each other, we’ll do it."
VA officials estimate that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Of those, only about 30 percent have had regular contact with department support services.
In 2014, veterans made up 18 percent of suicides in America but only 9 percent of the population.
If the oath proposal is not included in the House draft of the authorization bill, Mast plans on introducing stand-alone legislation to promote the idea. If it is included, the idea will still have to survive negotiations with Senate lawmakers later this year before becoming law.
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Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.