Holt’s bill in U.S. House could save lives of soldiers

CODA

GREG BEAN

Ihaven’t written about this much, because it’s still incredibly difficult — but developments in the last couple of weeks make me realize it’s time to say thanks.

Regular readers, and many who know our family, will remember that our son, Sgt. Coleman S. Bean, a two-time Army veteran of Iraq, took his own life on Sept. 6, 2008.

I won’t tell that story in great detail, because it has already been told in the pages of Greater Media Newspapers, in an in-depth package of stories earlier in the year by The Star-Ledger, and last week as part of a package of stories on soldier suicides by the national desk of The Associated Press. By my count, those AP stories ran in over 200 publications and websites across America and international venues. Any and all of those stories are available online.

Early on, my wife and I decided we would cooperate with news coverage, not because we are unique or wanted the publicity, but because we hoped that by making our family’s story public, we might do some good by bringing attention to the issue of the national tragedy of soldier suicide in general, and the plight of Individual Ready Reserve soldiers in particular. With the help and hard work of many people, we think progress is being made.

The IRR component of the story is complicated, but when young men and women join the military, they generally serve their initial four-year contracts and they are provided a range of counseling and information about services before they are allowed to muster out.

But many of those soldiers have also signed additional four-year commitments with the Individual Ready Reserve, which means that they can be called back to active duty any time during that four-year period. And if they are called back, they can be assigned anywhere the military has a need.

When our son was called back in 2007, he was assigned to a unit of the Maryland National Guard and served his second tour with them. When they came home, however, the Maryland soldiers had all the services and help their base provided. The Individual Ready Reserve soldiers went back to their home states — New Jersey in our son’s case — and they were, and still are, basically left to their own devices.

As anyone who has ever dealt with a government bureaucracy knows, it can be a difficult, if not impossible, road to travel alone. These soldiers need help, they need advocates and they need someone contacting them on a regular basis to see how they’re doing and what can be done to make their transitions back to civilian life successful.

Our son did not have those services, or found it too onerous to find them, and he fell through the cracks.

Since that time, not only has the military started to come to grips with the issue, but we have discovered many independent programs like Give an Hour, Vets4Vets and the Soldiers Project that provide confidential counseling services at no cost.

And we have also been blessed by the kind words and actions of not only friends and acquaintances, but national policy makers as well. Today, I’d especially like to recognize the efforts ofU.S.Rep.RushHolt and Patrick Eddington, the representative’s senior policy adviser for defense and intelligence issues.

Rush Holt, who represents my district in the U.S. House of Representatives, reached out to us personally in 2008 and asked, as part of our conversations, if there was anything he could do. I asked him to please pursue the idea of legislation to address some of the problems encountered by returning vets — especially as related to psychological services — and he promised he would, although he noted that he was already working and thinking in that direction.

He has been better

Last year, he added an amendment to a bill that would have required the secretary of defense to institute a program to contact IRR veterans every 90 days to determine how they were adjusting and provide help when needed with emotional, psychological, medical and career issues. Unfortunately, the amendment did not succeed. It passed the House but not the Senate.

He didn’t give up. Last week, on April 28, Holt introduced a stand-alone bill in the House of Representatives that would do the same thing. The act, which is called the Coleman S. Bean Individual Ready Reserve Suicide Prevention Act of 2010, was co-sponsored by Democratic U.S. Reps. George Miller of California, Shelly Berkley of Nevada, Jim Himes of Connecticut, and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. Republican Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland also signed on as a co-sponsor.

Holt is optimistic that the bill will pass the House. According to Eddington, Holt has an able ally in Shea-Porter, a House Armed Services Committee member who was pivotal in getting legislation passed last year to help protect troops from the use of toxic “burn pits,” another major health concern for our current generation of veterans.

I will admit to developing a high degree of cynicism toward politicians in my 30 years in the news business. There were times when I was even critical of Holt, but he didn’t hold it against me. On this issue, the efforts of Holt and Eddington, himself a veteran, have gone beyond anything we could have hoped for, or expected. And those efforts may end up saving lives. At least that is our profound hope.

So thank you, gentlemen. I’ll let my readers know how it all turns out.

• • •

This week, Gov. Chris Christie proposed putting an amendment to the state’s Constitution on November’s ballot that would limit property tax increases to no more than 2.5 percent a year. Get ready for the rumble.

All I’ll say for now is that Massachusetts did the same thing in 1980, and despite predictions that the sky would fall when it went into effect in 1982, the sky did not fall.

Sure, there was lots of posturing and some pain for a while as local governments worked to adjust, but the plan has stood the test of time and made Massachusetts stronger as a result.

More on this later.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.