AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee on Friday unanimously backed a bill to create a commission to improve health screenings before National Guard members are deployed.

The measure now goes to the House and Senate, pending legal analysis.

The bill, which has the support of 155 legislators and Gov. John Baldacci, was inspired by Barbara Damon-Day of Newcastle, whose 41-year-old son died unexpectedly of a heart ailment last June while serving in Afghanistan.

Capt. Patrick Damon of Falmouth, a member of the Maine National Guard’s 240th Engineering Group, collapsed on his bunk after a recreational run, his wife Hildi Halley, said at the time. He had no history of heart problems, news reports said.

An autopsy failed to show the reason behind the heart ailment, but Damon-Day suspects it may be related to the extensive series of vaccinations he had to have before he left.

She said the Vaccine Healthcare Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is looking into the death as possibly vaccine-related.

Damon-Day said she believes her son’s death was prolonged and could have been prevented if officials had taken certain steps in health screenings. In 19 years in the military, Patrick never received an EKG heart test, a simple process that would have detected his heart problem, she said.

During his autopsy, she said she heard, “‘If only we had an EKG we might be able to tell why Patrick died.'”

In a packet of information given to the committee, Damon-Day included four pictures of her son. One was of him hugging his son when he was deployed to Afghanistan. His son held onto him that day for two hours, she said.

Damon-Day said her motivation for pushing the bill was to make sure no other families would go through the same trauma hers did.

She went to the Legislature, where her story fell on sympathetic ears. Many in Augusta knew Damon as the chief of staff for the Speaker of the House from 2002 to 2004.

On Friday, current Speaker of the House Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, presented a bill to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that would create a Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard.

Cummings said the state owes it to Patrick to take measures to reduce noncombat deaths.

“When the Maine National Guard is deployed, these citizen soldiers of Maine require a high level of certainty that the health care and medications they receive will not put them in jeopardy…” Cummings testified. “Their jobs are dangerous enough without being subjected to further peril by the very medications meant to protect them.”

Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said in testimony that she was one of the first Damon-Day approached while trying to get the legislation put in. She said she realized, “This is something we’ve just got to do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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