- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

At least two families in the audience for the State of the Union will be looking to the president Tuesday night to publicly support steps that could have saved their sons and husbands who committed suicide after leaving the military.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, invited Joanna Eldridge, the widow of Marine Justin Eldridge who committed suicide in 2013, to be his guest to the speech.

“With Joanna in the audience and veterans and their families across the country listening at home, I urge the president to address this crisis and couple it with a call for action,” Mr. Blumenthal said in a statement.

The parents of Daniel Somers, a California Army National Guard veteran who committed suicide, will also be at the speech with Democratic Reps. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Scott Peters of California.

Advocates with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said the president should call for passage for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which would provide money to recruit more mental health professionals to the VA and require annual reviews of mental health programs.

“Tonight, veterans expect to hear President Obama clearly state that he has our back by supporting the Clay Hunt SAV Act,” said Paul Rieckhoff, Ceo of IAVA. “This is the one night he needs to remind people veterans exist.”

After stalling last year in the Senate, the bill is gaining momentum and unanimously passed the House earlier this month. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is expected to discuss the legislation in a business meeting Wednesday morning.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the president needs to address issues with the Veterans Affairs Department that extend beyond high suicide numbers and poor access to mental health care.

“Changing the culture at VA is a monumental task, and without the president leading by example it will be next to impossible,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “That’s why I hope the president will use tonight’s State of the Union address to pledge his personal involvement in helping the department overcome its many challenges.”

The VA came under fire last year when a whistleblower alleged veterans at a Phoenix facility were dying while waiting for care on secret lists. An investigation found widespread problems with access to care, including multiple veterans who suffered from mental health problems and committed suicide before the VA could provide help.

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