QUINCY -- A new bill passing through the Illinois Legislature will seek to curb the rising number of veteran suicides.
HB2647 is a 10-point plan to prevent the 22 daily suicides of veterans across the country. After three amendments, the bill has passed the House and the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee. It is up for a second reading in the Senate.
"It's about time they do something like this," said Dennis Boden, commander of the Quincy American Legion Post. "It seems to me that vets have been neglected."
The bill amends the Department of Veteran Affairs Act, requiring the department, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, to identify veterans returning from heavy casualty units or units where at least one service member committed suicide upon returning stateside.
"They're not giving the vets a shutdown period when they get back," Boden said. "I just hope this bill goes through. Now is the time to do it, not down the road."
If passed, HB2647 will jump start a public awareness campaign "concerning the trauma and internal injuries suffered by veterans." The campaign will seek to dispel the myths associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief and suicide.
"I don't think near enough thought is being given about PTSD," Boden said. "It's something you can't get out of your mind, and a lot of guys are too proud to admit they need help."
Treating PTSD, Boden said, involves countering the negative stigma. Many returning service members view counseling or medication as signs of weakness.
"The military, especially when you're overseas, doesn't put your life on hold," Boden said. "Everybody else's life has progressed while you're gone. When you get back to the states it's a totally different world, and you need time to settle back in."
The bill promotes collaboration between the VA and institutions of higher education to help the transition back to civilian life and provide outreach once they have become students. It will address "environmental factors that could negatively impact a veteran's ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting."
Cody Baggett, John Wood Community College dean of students, said many of the measures outlined by the bill mirror the long-standing approach of the school.
"Over the last five to seven years, all higher education institutions have been trying to think about how to accommodate but not single out, how to be inclusive and supportive," Baggett said. "I think this bill helps provide direction, but it's reinforcing a lot of the things we already provide."
JWCC tries to serve as a key liaison, Baggett said, helping "smooth that transition back into civilian life." The school offers one-on-one or group counseling. A certification officer and student veteran groups are also beneficial, Baggett said.
"I hope this bill provides opportunities for our active military folks when they get back home," Baggett said. "Sometimes there's not a lot of down time, and it can be quite the shock."
The bill recognizes the benefits of therapy dogs in the treatment of PTSD and will develop a new licensing program, "with a possible extension to other therapy animals," for veterans. The licensing program would set standards for the use of therapy animals.
If it passes, HB2647 will create a transition program for returning veterans, a system that allows veterans to file a federal DD Form 214 immediately upon discharge, an employer training program that focuses on employees who are veterans and a standard statewide peer-to-peer training program meant to familiarize veterans with veteran services available. The bill will also provide training to frontline employees at veteran service organizations.