New push to help suicidal military members

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There is a new push to reduce the number of military suicides. On Thursday, parents of soldiers testified about how their sons killed themselves while waiting for care at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.

The Pentagon tracks the statistics and says that every day, 22 military veterans die by suicide, and that it is a problem across all branches. Veteran James Heeter knows this all too well since his brother, Shean Heeter, a Marine, took his life one year after serving in Operation Desert Storm.

"It's very serious.  If people don't get treated for it, they're going to commit suicide like my brother. I almost committed suicide," said Heeter.

Thursday, a hearing took place on Capitol Hill to push VA clinics to see military post-traumatic stress disorder patients quicker.  It's a move psychologist and former sailor Dr. Justin D'Arienzo says is wise because PTSD can grow worse with time.

"People can commit suicide, they can have domestic violence incidents, they can become more depressed, more anxious, more isolated, they often lose employment," said D'Arienzo. 

Heeter said he recognized the symptoms and got help, but that his life was dark for a very long time.

"I would hold the gun to my head, spin the chamber and pull it.  Or sometimes just lay there with it stuck to my head," said Heeter. 

He also described the constant night terrors he experienced shortly after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"You see these young kids that have their whole life going for them, then hours later you see them blown to bits. When you see that every day for a year, day in and day out, gun fights, IEDs," he said.

A comprehensive investigation from the VA found that more than 4,000 veterans said they had a 90-day wait or longer to be seen by a doctor at the Gainesville VA.  

A practice psychologist and former sailor, Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, said this is dangerous.

"If someone is coming to you and telling you they have problems and it might be PTSD, they need to get help immediately," said D'Arienzo.

Heeter said he would love to see the number of vets dying by suicide disappear and hopes a new bill to speed up VA wait times will pass.  He said if the government is serious about stopping suicides, it will take two important factors.

"You're going to have to have educated people and money, I mean that's just the sad ...  that's just the fact about it, or there will be 22 vets. ... There's probably more than 22 veterans that kill themselves a day," said Heeter.

The bill to speed up the process to help vets with PTSD is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine who took his own life.