LAS VEGAS (AP) - The legacy of an Iraq war veteran from southern Nevada is playing a role in ensuring soldiers and Marines are better treated by the Veterans Affairs Department.
The House last week passed legislation named for Justin Bailey, a Las Vegas High School graduate who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and overdosed after staff at a VA hospital gave him a supply of medications to administer himself.
The bill, which the Senate has not passed, includes a provision by Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., to require the VA to assess procedures including oversight and distribution of prescriptions at its mental health facilities, and report back to Congress.
"I can't undo what happened to Justin," said Berkley, a longtime member of the Veterans Affairs Committee who had the bill renamed in his memory. "But I'm in a position to help make sure it doesn't happen again."
With the war in Iraq in its sixth year, Congress is turning attention to caring for the 1.6 million troops deployed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Congress last year provided one of the largest funding increases in the history of Veterans Affairs and rejected new fees the Bush administration wanted to charge veterans for care.
Lawmakers launched additional research on treatment of traumatic brain injuries, which typically come from combat blasts and can go unnoticed without outward scars.
A groundbreaking study last month from RAND Corp. found one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
To help troops readjust to civilian life, Congress this year has turned its attention to a new GI Bill, a hugely popular piece of legislation to provide veterans full resident tuition at any state school.
The bill has passed both chambers with robust majorities, but is opposed by the Pentagon, which fears soldiers and Marines will opt out of the service to go to college. President Bush is also opposed.
In voting for the bill this month, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., distanced himself from Bush and his party. Porter was among 32 Republicans willing to impose a tax on high-wage earners to pay for the educational benefit. The "millionaire's tax," which is in the House version of the bill but not the Senate's, would levy a half-percent surtax on earnings above $500,000 for singles, $1 million for couples.
Republican Nevada Rep. Dean Heller said he would support the bill if not for the tax, which he called "a jobs-killer" for small-business owners who employ tens of millions of Americans.
Republican Sen. John Ensign voted against the bill because he worries, as the Pentagon does, about recruitment. Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, voted in favor.
Berkley voted for the bill and said she cannot understand the opposition.
Other veterans bills from Nevada lawmakers are making their way through Congress.
A Porter bill to investigate which jobs in the military are causing the most stress passed last week as part of a sweeping defense bill.
A Heller bill to provide a tax deduction of up to $400 to cover travel expenses for veterans living more than 25 miles from a VA facility now has 19 co-sponsors, his office said.
A Senate bill, which Ensign signed, includes a provision named for Bailey that would beef up VA services for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
Berkley started working on The Justin Bailey Substance Use Disorders Prevention and Treatment Act of 2008 after learning about the 27-year-old from his family.
The Marine infantryman was scheduled to end his tour in 2003, but got a "stop-loss" order that sent him to Iraq until 2004.
After discharge, he enrolled in a sound recording and engineering school in Los Angeles but had trouble adjusting. He told his family he needed help.
He checked himself into the VA hospital in Los Angeles late November 2006, and died two months later.
Berkley said she was particularly moved when she learned his parents were given their son's belongings in a plastic garbage bag at the VA.
The VA center in Washington declined to comment.
Bailey's parents still live in Las Vegas.
His stepmother, Mary Kaye Bailey, said the family is honored to have Justin's name on the bill and grateful that Congress is addressing their concerns about veterans facing substance-abuse issues.
"We don't think what happened to Justin just happened to Justin," she said. "There are systemic issues in the VA and they need to be fixed."
Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com