Thursday, January 31, 2008

Iowans lauded for anti-suicide efforts

Iowans lauded for work on PTSD

The governor spoke. So did both United States senators and an Iowa congressman. But it was the tall man with the sad face and deep voice whose words and presence commanded silence Friday afternoon in the rotunda of the Iowa Capitol.

Randy Omvig clutched a sheet of paper as he talked about the national suicide prevention legislation for veterans that bears the name of his son, Joshua.

"We have been asked, if this bill would have been in place for Josh, would it have helped him?" the Grundy Center man said. "Ellen and I believe with the increased awareness of the veterans and their families, with the provisions of this bill in place and working, Josh would have had a better chance for survival."

Spc. Joshua Omvig, 22, killed himself on Dec. 22, 2005, a month after successfully completing an 11-month deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve's 339th Military Police Company of Davenport. His family believes he was suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder.

"Unfortunately, the war came (home) with him," Gov. Chet Culver said. "The wounds from that conflict never healed, and in the end, Josh himself became another casualty."

To help prevent similar casualties, President Bush signed the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act in November.

How that law came to pass was largely the result of actions by Iowa's congressional delegation and two grieving parents who thought more could be done to assist troubled veterans.

"Make no mistake," Sen. Tom Harkin told the audience of about 50 lawmakers, military members, mental health workers, politicians and reporters. "This bill would not have passed without the personal engagement of Ellen and Randy Omvig."

Sen. Charles Grassley called their mission another reminder "that one family dedicated to a cause can make a difference."

After their son's suicide, the Omvigs began hearing from other troops, and their families, who had faced a terrible time adjusting to life after Iraq. They approached U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell: Couldn't something be done to help these returning troops?

Boswell, a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, said he was moved by the Omvig family's story.

"What more difficult thing could happen to a parent, a mother?" he asked.

The law named for Joshua Omvig directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer mental health screening and referrals, at a veteran's request, for counseling and treatment. Among other things, the law requires a 24-hour, toll-free hot line that returning troops can call for mental health counseling.

Harkin announced Friday that he will introduce legislation next week to try to help prevent suicide among active-duty members of the military, too. The U.S. Army reported that 85 soldiers committed suicide last year, the most since 1990, Harkin said.

Boswell said the Joshua Omvig law "will save the lives of thousands of veterans."

Randy Omvig said the law is already working. The national suicide hot line has logged 6,000 calls from veterans in crisis, he said. Of those, 300 needed immediate intervention and 1,300 went on to counseling.

Omvig told the legislators that their work had saved lives. "We continually hear that veterans want to talk to other veterans who know," he said.

As he spoke, 16 members of Joshua's unit, the 339th Military Company, stood nearby, including Michael Duncan, 24, of Oxford Junction. Duncan has Joshua's name tattooed on his chest and back and considered him to be his best friend.

"This will help people," Duncan said. "It'll let soldiers know that they can get help if they need help."

The ceremony concluded when the Iowa lawmakers presented the Omvigs with a copy of the law signed by Bush.

"I don't cry in front of people," said Joshua's sister, Rachel Omvig, 19, who lives in Cedar Falls. "Ever. Except for this."

She disappeared down a hallway, away from the cameras, wiping her eyes.

"She needed a break," Ellen Omvig said softly as she dropped into a chair. Ellen cannot stand for very long. She suffers ailments connected to a long-ago car crash, and the devastation associated with her son's death heightens that.

From November through December, Ellen said, she becomes a hermit, holing up in her Grundy Center home to wait out Joshua's Nov. 18 birthday and the anniversary of his death in December.

She starts having trouble around Halloween and doesn't leave the house much until after Christmas passes. Holiday cards and sympathy cards mingled in the family mailbox.

She said the family receives support from family, friends and church members.

"We don't cry every single day," she said. "I have a few days a month when I don't cry."

Reporter Ken Fuson can be reached at (515) 284-8501 or

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