President Joe Biden calls an Iowan's mother after signing VA mental health law named for her son

June 30, 2021
In The News

Beverly Kittoe was working in her hair salon Wednesday when she received an unexpected call from Washington, D.C. She didn't recognize the number, but decided to answer.

The caller was a White House staffer. The staffer asked if Kittoe could spare a few minutes to speak to President Joe Biden about her son, Iowa National Guard veteran Brandon Ketchum.

Yes, Kittoe replied. Of course she could. 

The president had just signed a bill named for Ketchum, who died by suicide in 2016. The bill, co-sponsored by all four Iowa members of the U.S. House of Representatives, aims to improve access to VA mental health services for rural veterans. 

Biden came on the phone line, thanked Kittoe for her son's service and offered his condolences.

"He said he was very sorry, and he hoped to meet me someday," said Kittoe, who lives in Baraboo, Wis.

Brandon Ketchum's mother touched by President Biden's call 

The president told Kittoe he empathized with her family's pain. He noted that he also lost a son who was an Iraq War veteran, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden said he hoped the new law would help other veterans. 

Kittoe said she was touched by the president's call and by his signature on the bill, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up three new teams for enhanced mental health care outside of cities. The program is described as being for rural vets, which, under federal rules, would include those living in much of Iowa.

The new law also requires federal officials to study mental health services provided in rural areas, and to recommend improvements. 

Kittoe's voice cracked with emotion Wednesday as she talked in a phone interview about the effort. She said America continues to see too many veterans suffer trauma from their war experiences that they take their own lives. 

"I hope this will help someone else, so another mother and father won't have to go through what we went through," she said. "I'm so grateful this bill was passed." 

She said she was proud to have Iowa members of Congress attach her son's name to the effort.

"To put a name on a bill is so important. It's so much better than just a number — because what's a number?" she said. She hopes strangers will see the name "Brandon Ketchum" and turn to the internet to learn about her son. 

What happened to Brandon Ketchum?

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. 

A previous bill named for Ketchum failed to pass after then-Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa introduced it several years ago. The new bill was shepherded by U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, an Iowa Democrat who took office in 2019.

“I am so proud that my first standalone bill signed into law this Congress is one that honors the service of an Iowa hero — Sergeant Brandon Ketchum — and recognizes the need to have our veterans’ backs when they return home, regardless of where they live," she said in a news release Wednesday. 

Signs of trouble, where to get mental health help

Experts say these are common signs of mental health struggles:

  • Insomnia
  • 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 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