Suicide prevention bill a tribute to local veteran

Holt says government failed Army sergeant from East Brunswick


After two combat tours in Iraq, Coleman Bean of East Brunswick sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but he did not receive the support that is in place for many returning veterans.

Sgt. Coleman Bean Sgt. Coleman Bean Bean was a member of the U.S. Army’s Individual Ready Reserve, with which he had signed a four-year commitment after completing his first tour of duty. This meant that Bean, who fought in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, could be called back to active duty at any time and assigned anywhere the military had a need. Bean was called back in 2007 and assigned to a unit of the Maryland National Guard, with whom he served his second tour in Iraq.

Bean fought in Northern Iraq through much of 2007 and early 2008. Upon returning that May, the Maryland soldiers had access to the services and help of their Army base, but the IRR soldiers went back to their home states, basically left to their own devices. A few months after returning to New Jersey, Bean, whose PTSD symptoms included extreme anxiety attacks and depression, took his life in the early hours of Sept. 6, 2008, at the age of 25.

As U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th District) sees it, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs refused to take ownership of him and the thousands like him.

“Two federal agencies charged with helping prevent suicides among our returning troops utterly failed Sgt. Bean and his family,” Holt said. “We cannot allow another family to lose a son or daughter, a father or mother, a husband or a wife because of bureaucratic buck-passing.”

Holt announced last week that he has introduced legislation to fill a void in the military’s suicide prevention efforts among members of the IRR and for other soldiers who are designated as individual mobilization augmentees (IMAs). Holt noted that, in between deployments, IRR members and IMAs lack direct, easy access to the kinds of suicide prevention services and support structures available to active duty troops.

Holt is seeking to fix that deficiency through his bill, named in honor of Coleman Bean. U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), Jim Himes (DConn.), Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) joined Holt in offering the bipartisan bill.

The federal act would require the secretary of defense to ensure that members of the IRR who have served at least one tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan receive a counseling call from properly trained personnel at least once every 90 days; and require personnel conducting this call to determine the emotional, psychological, medical and career needs and concerns of the IRR member. Any IRR member identified as being at risk of harming himself or herself would be referred immediately to the nearest military treatment facility or accredited TRICARE provider for evaluation and treatment by a qualified mental health care provider. In those cases, the Defense Department would be required to confirm that the at-risk IRR member has received the evaluation and any necessary treatment.

Also, beginning in 2011, the bill would require the secretary of defense to report to Congress regularly the number of IRR members not assigned to units who have been referred for mental health treatment, as well as the health and career status of these service members.

Bean’s parents, Greg and Linda, of East Brunswick, have corresponded with Holt since Coleman’s passing, and support the legislation.

“It is important not only as a suicide prevention measure, but because it also will help Individual Ready Reserve soldiers find the assistance they are currently lacking in other areas of their lives, like career and medical needs,” said Greg Bean, former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. “These fine men and women served America with courage and integrity, and now it is up to us to make sure that their needs are met as well. Too many IRR veterans have slipped through the safety net provided to other returning members of the armed forces, and this legislation will help close the gaps.”

Linda Bean said Holt’s bill “directly addresses the mental health needs of the more than 11,000 IRR soldiers and countless individual augmentees who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, a population that is underserved by both the military and VA mental health systems.

“Since Coleman’s death, we have come to know that one phone call — just one honest expression of compassion — can help catch and hold someone who is at the edge of despair. For us, if the phone calls mandated by this legislation help save one life, then that is blessing enough,” she said.

Last June, a nearly identical version of the Holt bill passed the House on a voice vote as an amendment to the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. However, an anonymous Senate conferee objected to the provision during the conference report negotiations, arguing it was too costly. According to Holt’s office, no member of the Senate ever requested that the Congressional Budget Office score the provision.

“How anyone could believe that our government can’t afford to make suicide prevention phone calls to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is as baffling as it is callous,” Holt said. “I urge all House and Senate members to join me in taking this simple step to help all our IRR and IMA service members get access to the suicide prevention counseling and support that they need and deserve.”

The bill will be considered by the House, and if approved will go to the Senate. Zach Goldberg, a spokesman for Holt, said he did not know when the bill might be voted on.

“Certainly it is a priority of [Holt’s], so he is going to try to advance it as quickly as possible,” Goldberg said.