Iowa veteran Brandon Ketchum, who died by suicide, honored with bill to improve VA mental health care
Brandon Ketchum's family is grateful to Iowa's members of Congress, who have not forgotten the tragic way he died almost five years ago.
All four of Iowa's U.S. House members are supporting the "Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans’ Mental Health Act," which was discussed in a hearing Thursday.
The bill's title honors Ketchum, a Davenport veteran who died by suicide in 2016 after being denied inpatient psychiatric care at the Iowa City Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Ketchum's mother, Beverly Kittoe, said this week she was proud to see his name attached to the bill.
"Brandon had the biggest heart. He always made sure others got what they needed before he got anything for himself," Kittoe said in a phone interview from her home in Wisconsin.
VA hospital turned Ketchum away
Ketchum, 33, was a veteran of the Marine Corps and the Iowa National Guard, who served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and drug abuse, for which he sought care. In July 2016, he went to the Iowa City VA hospital, where he asked to be admitted. A psychiatrist there determined inpatient care wasn't needed for Ketchum, who then left the facility and drove home to Davenport. That night, he took his own life.
A VA inspector general's investigation later found the hospital staff was not directly responsible for the death. But Ketchum's family and supporters said the tragedy highlighted holes in the system for helping troubled veterans.
Kittoe said former U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who was southeast Iowa's congressman at the time, introduced a version of the bill a few years ago. Loebsack, a Democrat, retired from Congress in January, but the family was glad to hear other Iowa representatives of both parties continue to press for action.
The bill discussed Thursday would require the VA to spend $1.2 million per year to establish three new teams for a program that enhances mental health care outside of cities. The program is described as being for rural vets, who under federal rules would include those living in much of Iowa.
The bill also would require federal officials to study mental health services provided in rural areas, and to recommend improvements.
Rep. Cindy Axne says no vet should face what Ketchum did
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat representing the southwest quadrant of Iowa, announced the proposed bill in a joint news release this week with her three Republican colleagues from Iowa.
Axne spoke about it at Thursday's hearing of a House subcommittee on Veterans Affairs.
Axne, who has she'd recently spoken to Kittoe, recounted how Ketchum's service in Iraq included helping clear 92 roadside bombs in seven months. Like many veterans, he suffered mental health and drug abuse issues afterward, she said.
Axne said only half of veterans who need mental health help receive it.
"The mental health services are even harder to find in rural parts of our country, like Iowa," she said. "...It's so important that what happened to Sgt. Ketchum never happens to another veteran."
U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican who represents southeast Iowa and who is an Army veteran, joined the call for the proposal.
“Expanding health care services in rural America and among our veterans are two of my top priorities in Congress, so I am proud to join the entire Iowa delegation in this effort. We simply have to do better for our veterans, there is no other option," Miller-Meeks wrote in this week's joint news release about the bill.
Kittoe said she was unsure how the bill's changes would have affected her son, but she's glad something is being proposed. "This is something that maybe will help someone," she said Wednesday, her voice cracking with emotion. "Even if it's just one person."
Signs of trouble, where to get help
Experts say these are common signs of mental health struggles:
Frequent headaches or stomachaches
Lethargy, or loss of interest in any activities
Self-isolation from friends and loved ones
Lack of personal hygiene
Increased drinking or drug use
Family strife, or problems completing work or school assignments
Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
Several options are available for quick access to mental health assistance.
Veterans in crisis can call 800-273-8255 or go online to veteranscrisisline.net.
The Iowa Department of Human Services has set up a “warm line,” which connects people to peer support specialists and counselors. Call 844-775-9276 or visit www.COVIDrecoveryiowa.org.
The Iowa Department of Public Health has a website, yourlifeiowa.org, with information and resources regarding mental health, gambling and alcohol and drug abuse. The program also has 24-hour help available by calling 855-581-8111 or texting 855-895-8398.
Calling 211 will connect people with social services resources, including mental health counseling.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-TALK (8255). The lifeline is answered by someone at a crisis center closest to your location. Other resources are available online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org