A Long Island Iraq veteran who left the Army after attempting suicide appealed to members of Congress in Washington Thursday to pass legislation aimed at curbing the number of veterans and soldiers who kill themselves, estimated at 22 a day.
Kristopher Goldsmith and 18 other members of Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans of America hand-delivered a petition with 60,000 signatures to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's office. The petition urges the outgoing majority leader to bring the bill to the Senate floor.
"I'm here to put a face on the issue," Goldsmith, of Long Beach, said by telephone from Washington. "Suicide is uncomfortable to talk about, but not talking about it is killing people."
Known as the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Bill, the measure, which is named after a Marine veteran who killed himself, would force the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit their mental health and suicide prevention programs to an independent evaluator. The VA programs have often been criticized as ineffective and unwieldy.
The measure, which was initiated by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would also authorize the VA to recruit more psychiatrists by granting student loan waivers of up to $125,000 per year. It would also require the VA to create a website specifying veterans mental health programs and contact information in specific communities.
Suicide prevention has been cited as a top priority for the IAVA, an organization that advocates for the nation's newest veterans. Although suicide among older vets has remained relatively stable, suicides among veterans in their 20s and 30s have surged, and have claimed several victims here on Long Island.
Goldsmith, a former sergeant whose duties during a 2005 Iraq deployment included photographing the dismembered bodies of civilians murdered in sectarian violence, said severe depression led him to try to kill himself days before he was scheduled to return to combat in 2007. He said rather than treat his suicidal impulses, the Army forced him out with a general discharge, leaving him at risk of attempting suicide again.
After struggling with alcoholism and violent impulses, Goldsmith said, he embraced suicide prevention as a personal mission, traveling the country with IAVA members to urge fellow veterans to take up the cause.
"Everywhere I went, every time I talked to someone about suicide prevention," Goldsmith said, "someone would say to me, 'Yes, I know someone who killed himself.' "