WASHINGTON — In 2008, a young sergeant named Coleman S. Bean took his life. After completing his first tour of duty in Iraq, he had come home and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nevertheless, he was deployed to Iraq a second time. Bean had sought treatment for PTSD but as a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), he found fewer resources available to him than to veterans and active-duty members.
In April, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced legislation named after the late soldier meant to provide more resources for suicide prevention to Reserve members. The House in May incorporated it into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011, but it was stripped from the final version, and Holt is pointing the finger at the lead Republican negotiator on the Senate legislation, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"Twice now, the Senate has stripped this legislation from our defense bill," Holt told The Huffington Post Tuesday. "It's hard to understand why. I know for a fact, because he told me, that Sen. McCain doesn't support it. Whether he's the only one, I don't know. But there was no effort to try to improve the language or negotiate changes; it was just rejected, and I think that is not only bad policy, but it's cruel. It's cruel to the families that are struggling with catastrophic mental health problems."
"He [McCain] said having these counselors check in with the Reservists every few months this way overreaching," continued Holt, relaying a phone conversation he had had with the senator. "I asked him in what sense it was overreaching. Surely he didn't think there wasn't a problem, did he? I must say I don't understand it."
The major piece of Holt's amendment would require the Defense Department to ensure that every member of the Reserves who completes at least one tour of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan receives "a counseling call from properly trained personnel not less than once every 90 days so long as the servicemember remains a member of the IRR." If they were determined to be at risk, they would receive counseling or mental health treatment.
The legislation is modeled on a program run by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which provides veterans with peer counseling and clinical assessments. Unlike the program proposed by Holt, however, veterans and their families are the ones to initiate assistance.
McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan took issue with Holt's version of events, saying that he should look to his House colleagues for why the amendment was removed.
"Unfortunately, and with all due respect, Holt's office is mischaracterizing Senator McCain's 'support' for the provision," wrote Buchanan in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The fact is the provision never entered conference and was actually removed on the House side before the bill was taken to conference. So whatever frustrations or concerns Congressman Holt may have should be directed to his colleagues on the House side. Senator McCain is committed to providing the necessary support to every service member and appreciates the special needs of our armed forces and the particular hardships they face both at home and abroad."
A Holt spokesman responded that the reason it was removed from the House version this year was because of pre-emptive objections from the Senate.
This week, Coleman's father Gregory, wrote a column expressing disappointment with McCain. "Late last week, the defense appropriations bill passed without Holt's measure as a part of it. Holt says he's furious; so are we," he stated. "In fact, I'm so angry that McCain -- who has dined out for decades as an 'advocate' for veterans -- made a unilateral decision to squash this fine, bipartisan measure that discretion dictates I write no more about it until I cool down."
Holt said going forward, he'll re-introduce his legislation as a stand-alone measure, try to get the language included in military health care legislation and help the Pentagon improve mental health services.
"I'll keep trying to have the best possible federal policy to provide this help," said Holt. "I thought it was just an oversight or a mistake when the Senate rejected this last year, but when they really deliberately and knowingly rejected it this time, I was just appalled."
In 2009, Holt also included his amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, but an anonymous senator blocked the measure, and it was stripped out.