By LEDYARD KING • Tribune Washington Bureau • October 29, 2009
WASHINGTON — Montana’s program to aggressively screen combat veterans for signs of mental trauma is going national. President Barack Obama signed a Department of Defense authorization bill Wednesday, which among other provisions extends the Treasure State’s program by requiring all military personnel to get face-to-face screenings before they leave for combat and periodically after they return to see if there are signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental illnesses. Current programs vary from state to state and are often not nearly as rigorous as the Montana program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, when fully implemented, the new national program will result in the need for an additional 150,000 mental health assessments annually. Matt Kuntz, who led the campaign to implement the program in Montana two years ago and now federally, said he was “touched.” His stepbrother, Chris Dana, committed suicide 15 months after returning from Iraq as a member of the Montana National Guard. Dana suffered from PTSD, but it was not diagnosed in time, his brother said. “I’m still personally really sorry I didn’t do a better job when he needed me,” said Kuntz, who serves as executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I just wanted to do this to honor him and, more importantly, to help make it so other families wouldn’t have to be in the same situation. I know that he didn’t want anybody else to be in the same situation he was.” Kuntz praised Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., for their help in getting the measure through Congress. Baucus’ office cited a 2008 RAND Corporation study showing that nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or depression.