Like American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle, Clay Hunt was a Texas-bred sniper who served in Iraq and struggled with the after-effects of war when he returned home.
And like Kyle, Hunt found great comfort in helping other veterans cope with their own struggles. But for Hunt, the “other battle” – as many veterans refer to the challenge of transitioning back to civilian life – proved to be too much. In 2011, the decorated former Marine took his own life at age 28.
Nearly four years later, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act is set to be brought to the Senate floor late Monday. The bipartisan bill was spearheaded by IAVA, the nonprofit organization representing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the heart behind the bill has been Clay’s mom, Susan Selke.
“We can’t go back and change anything that happened to Clay,” Selke tells PEOPLE. “But we felt very compelled to do whatever we could to help other veterans that might be in the same place he was.”
A Mother’s Heartbreak
The crisis is staggering: Veterans face a suicide risk that is double that of the civilian population, according to a new study in The Annals of Epidemiology. And a 2014 survey by IAVA found that 40 percent of the group’s members know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has died by suicide.
For Selke, shedding light on the issue is “one of the things that has kept us going,” she says. “From early on, we have had veterans come up and say, ‘I haven’t been able to talk about this until now.'”
A “typical Texas boy” who loved animals and was “full of energy and had a huge heart,” as Selke describes her son, Hunt decided to enlist after 9/11. “The way he approached things was to challenge himself,” she says. “He wanted to be in the Marines. He knew how tough that was.”
He was deployed to Iraq in 2007, where in just six weeks he saw several members of his unit killed and narrowly missed a sniper’s bullet to the head himself, instead suffering an injury to his wrist. “He was very upset about having to leave his unit,” says Selke. “These men feel like they need to be with the rest of their men to protect them.”
In 2007, midway through active duty, Hunt was diagnosed with PTSD. He sought treatment and in 2008 graduated from sniper school and redeployed, this time to Afghanistan. When he was honorably discharged in 2009, he received a 30 percent disability rating from the VA for his PTSD.
“That summer, he took a job at a bike shop and they had to let him go because of panic attacks,” says Selke. “The crowds would get to him. He would have to go outside and collect himself. It was extremely frustrating for him.”
In the months that followed, Selke says her son faced mounting challenges in receiving treatment at the VA, including scheduling timely appointments, finding mental-health support and making sure his anti-anxiety prescriptions were filled without interruption. “The problems just piled one on top of the other,” she says.
After he returned to Houston from California to be closer to his family, “he kind of lost that peer support” from other veterans, says Selke, noting that her son’s struggles are echoed by many servicemen and women. “When they get out of the military, they lose that sense of community and that sense of purpose. It’s a hard transition.”
A Helping Hand
For Hunt, the greatest source of comfort was helping others who were going through similar struggles. He cycled with the veterans’ support group Ride 2 Recovery and worked with IAVA. He also made several trips to Haiti to help with relief efforts after the devastating earthquake there in 2010.
“What Clay found was that helping others is what helped him the most,” says his mom. “After Haiti he talked about how going to a rubble-strewn third-world country and being able to help people without anyone shooting at him was just the most wonderful thing. He said it renewed his faith in humanity and was just very soothing to his soul.”
‘He Put on a Good Front’
Looking back, “I think he did not want to worry us more than he had to,” says Selke. “He put on a good front, kept a smile on his face, kept reassuring us, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got this covered,’ until toward the end when he couldn’t handle it. You kind of let your guard down and then all of a sudden, everything goes dark.”
Just five days before he killed himself, Hunt had asked his mom to help him turn in his old car because he’d just bought a new truck. At their final dinner together, “he wasn’t quite as chipper as he usually was,” says Susan. Still, “our last time we all had with him, it was good. He seemed to be doing better.”
With the massive success of American Sniper, which has now become the highest-grossing war movie of all time, Selke says she is hopeful for an increased awareness of “what these guys go through.”
And she is also hopeful that the SAV Act will help veterans like her son, both in terms of removing the stigma surrounding mental-health issues and in promoting improved care and accountability at Veterans Affairs facilities across the country.
“We are just in awe with how Clay’s story seems to have resonated with so many people,” says Selke. “He’s not here with us anymore, but I feel him in spirit with us all the time. I just think he would be so happy and grateful that other veterans are getting to heal and grow through groups like IAVA, Ride 2 Recovery and Team Rubicon.”
When she thinks of Clay now, “I know he’s not in anguish anymore,” Selke says. “Our faith is strong. Clay was a believer and a Christian and we know that he’s happy and safe. Knowing that helps.”
She draws comfort knowing that she is helping others by sharing her son’s story.
“One person telling me it helped them,” she says, “makes it all worth it.”