WASHINGTON — Nothing grabs my heart like seeing a 90-year-old veteran with his hand over his heart and tears in his eyes.
As a veteran myself — I served as a soldier in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and later in Mogadishu, Somalia — I know those tears stand for long-lost friends, stories too harsh to tell and a feeling of camaraderie that bubbles up instantly in the presence of other vets.
For some, those memories can cause guilt, anxiety or depression, sometimes leading to substance abuse, broken relationships — or even suicide when the pain becomes too much to bear.
When I cover veterans' issues, what always strikes me is the short-term memory of the bureaucrats charged with helping men and women recover from the traumas of war. I was reminded vividly of that at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday focusing on veterans' suicides.
"In a note he left behind, Daniel Somers wrote that he felt his government had 'abandoned' him and referenced coming home to face a 'system of dehumanization, neglect and indifference,'" Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said at the hearing. Somers was an Iraq War soldier who killed himself in 2013.
Seven years ago, the script was almost exactly the same during a series of hearings I covered about veterans who were killing themselves after combat.
In late 2006, Army reservist Joshua Omvig went home for Thanksgiving a week after he returned from Iraq. While home, he pulled out a gun in front of his mother and shot himself.
The following year, President Bush signed into law a bill named after Omvig. It called for better screening of veterans returning from combat, better education, more mental health professionals for the Department of Veterans Affairs, more research, a new suicide hotline.
"This bill has Josh's name on it, but it represents so many men and women before and after Josh who were unable to live with the physical, mental and psychological effects of their service," his father, Randall Omvig, said at the time.
Despite the legislation, despite the good intentions, the situation has only gotten worse. In 2007, an average of 17 veterans killed themselves each month. Today, that number is 22.
One member of Congress, with vivid memories of the Omvig bill, says the VA simply has not delivered on what the law ordered it to do.
"We gave the speeches; we had the signing ceremony; and we went back home and said, 'Gee, we made a difference,'" said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., once a command sergeant in the Army National Guard who was also at those 2007 hearings. "And here you sit, just like Joshua Omvig's parents came up from Iowa to testify on this."
Thursday, three sets of parents sat before the House Veterans Affairs Committee and testified about their dead sons.
One of those sons, Clay Hunt, a Marine Corps veteran, spent many days knocking on doors on Capitol Hill seeking better treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He became well-known to Walz and other lawmakers.
But the VA lost Hunt's records. He faced long wait times when he sought help. He dealt with survivor's guilt that couldn't be erased.
In 2011, he shot himself.
"Not one more veteran," his mother, Susan Selke, said Thursday.
Thursday, Miller and Walz introduced the "Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act." The measure would create pilot programs to provide better access to care, encourage the VA to hire mental health practitioners and require a review of its suicide-prevention programs.
"This is how democracy can work best," Walz said. "Keep the faith. We have to. If we don't get results this time, then shame on us."
Kennedy covers veterans and health issues for USA TODAY's Congressional team.