WASHINGTON (WAVY) – Two Virginia lawmakers on Capitol Hill have added key provisions to different versions of next year’s defense budget – but they have at least one important thing in common. It’s the need for better mental health services in the military.
A conference committee is working out the differences in the two versions after Senate and House Armed Services Committees approved respective versions of the $886 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2024.
Each has a strong focus on how to prevent tragic suicide clusters, such as those connected with USS George Washington and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, MARMC. The proposals also look at what limits should be imposed on limited duty, common for sailors connected with MARMC.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he received vital feedback from families affected by the recent suicides.
“I want to offer my thanks to the military families who shared – very directly with me, and sometimes very painfully with me — the mental health challenges that they face,” Kaine said in a conference call Friday with reporters.
Congresswoman and Navy veteran Jen Kiggans (R-VA-02) of Virginia Beach said the House version also has mental health as a priority.
“We need to look at what the standard operating procedures are for commands that have experienced cluster suicides. So do they have a plan in place, and that was because of what we saw with the George Washington and with MARMC,” Kiggans said during a Friday interview with WAVY.
Many of those assigned to MARMC are on limited duty, and both lawmakers agree that “lim-du” as it’s known needs an overhaul.
“We’re looking at how we’re assessing the mental health needs of our limited duty sailors. We’re looking at do they need to be screened initially — or are we able to do that with just mental health providers, or do we need to increase access to care through the chaplain corps and through corpsmen,” Kiggans said.
“They often have no idea not only when the limited duty will end, they don’t even know when they’ll know when limited duty will end,” Kaine said of the uncertainty surrounding limited duty. “If they don’t know the future, that really leads to significant mental health stress.”
Suicide prevention coordinators are now part of the military culture, a signal that much has changed since Kiggans was a Navy helicopter pilot 20 years ago.
“Although I am saddened that we are at this point, I am glad that the Navy recognizes that mental health matters, that there’s a stigma that we need to overcome,” Kiggans said.
Some other key proposals – in the Senate version, a 5% pay hike for service members and defense civilian personnel, and expanding basic housing allowance for living away from a ship when it’s in long-term maintenance.
Kiggans said the House version calls for better access to contraception and breast cancer screenings, better housing options, and a robust program for ship repair and shipbuilding.