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Families touched by tragedy hail passage of suicide prevention act for veterans

Hartford Justin Eldridge would be proud, his widow said Friday.

Joanna Eldridge was one of a handful of survivors who spoke at a press conference held by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., following the passage of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which he co-sponsored.

Justin Eldridge of Waterford took his own life after battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

He joined the Marines in 2001 and served until he took a medical retirement as a sergeant in 2008. In an interview after her husband’s death in October 2013, Joanna Eldridge said her husband tried to overcome the trauma he experienced during an eight-month tour in Afghanistan.

He tried drug combinations, underwent counseling and therapy and spent time in VA hospitals, she said.

Justin Eldridge’s story was one of several told Friday morning by those who have lost loved ones to suicide.

“There is just a lot of sadness for all of us, but there’s a lot of hope, too,” Joanna Eldridge said, standing among the other survivors in the Legislative Office Building.

David “Rick” Findley was 33 years old and just two weeks shy of celebrating his first wedding anniversary when he took his life, said his sister-in-law, Jennifer Huber.

“He had plans ... . He wanted to test out his new deep fryer and meat grinder my sister had given to him. And he wanted to start a family with my sister and finish his degree,” Huber said.

“Our country needs to do everything possible to help other veterans so that they can live long enough to make their plans a reality,” she said.

When Cindy Dubuque got the call 3½ years ago that her sister, Lisa Silberstein of Hamden, had taken her own life, “We weren’t talking about PTSD the way that we are today,” she said.

“We weren’t talking about the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day. We need to continue to destigmatize these wounds, and continue to provide the support as a nation to these veterans who come home, and to our families as well,” said Dubuque, of Hartford.

The bill was named after Clay Hunt, a Purple Heart recipient and Marine veteran who committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28. Hunt, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009. After returning home, he suffered from PTSD and struggled with inadequate care at his local VA hospital before taking his own life.

On average, approximately 8,000 U.S. veterans commit suicide each year. The bipartisan legislation aims to reverse that trend by calling for annual independent evaluations of mental health care and suicide prevention programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other provisions.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction. I know, had this been in place, there would definitely have been a better possibility for my husband to have survived,” Eldridge said, adding that she was thankful their children, “will get to see the benefits of this. That saying something, and standing up for something, really does make a difference.”

Their oldest child is 9 and the youngest is 4. While they are obviously young, “I tell them as much as they can understand, which is that they’re passing a bill that’s going to help people like Daddy who have brain injuries,” Joanna Eldridge said after the news conference.

“I will continue to tell them that their Dad fought to be with them for as long as he could, and that this will help other families be able to stay together,” she said.

The act will also consolidate and improve existing mental health programs, make suicide prevention information more readily available, enhance resources for transitioning veterans, particularly for those returning from combat, and provide new incentives to attract more psychiatrists to treat veterans through the VA.

But Blumenthal hopes to do more. He said the version of the bill that passed “is a more modest version of a broader mandate that we sought in the last Congress. We have trimmed down the amount of money involved. We’ve reduced the scope of the bill.”

The bill was first introduced in July 2014, and was passed by the House in December 2014. At the end of the session, then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the bill from coming up for a vote in the Senate reportedly due to his concerns over its $22 million price tag, and that the bill duplicated existing VA programs.

“There’s a need for more funding, more professional services, more outreach, more support for the families, more access by the veteran, more education for the public, more awareness on the part of the veterans that it’s OK to seek mental health care,” Blumenthal said.

He said that he fully expects President Barack Obama to sign the measure.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: JuliaSBergman

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