Gates Vows to Fix Mental Health System

The Associated Press
Thursday, June 21, 2007; 5:12 PM

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised Thursday to speed up changes to the military's much-criticized mental health system, declaring "this is something that we can, must and will get fixed."

A study released last week said more money and people are needed to care for troops suffering depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms and other mental health problems because of their war experiences. It also said the Pentagon needs to build a culture of support throughout the military to help remove the stigma of asking for and getting psychological help.

Gates told a Pentagon press conference that one proposal to give troops time off from the battle in Iraq might be hard to do. But he said he supports another proposal that would do away with the practice of asking troops about previous mental health treatment when they apply for a security clearance.

"Too many avoid seeking mental health help because of the fear of losing their security clearance," he said.

The Associated Press reported last week that the department is studying a proposal to change a questionnaire required by the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that does the majority of investigations for granting military and civilian government security clearances. It asks if applicants have gotten mental health care in the last seven years and asks them to list the names, addresses and dates they saw a doctor or therapist _ a practice that critics say sends a mixed message in that it discourages troops from seeking treatment.

Gates said Thursday he would work "very aggressively" to get the question removed.

The Pentagon has been working for some time to end the stigma of counseling. Studies indicate that soldiers most in need of post-combat health care are the least likely to get it because they fear that others will have less confidence in them, that it will threaten career advancement and that it could result in the loss of their security clearance and possibly removal from their unit.

The yearlong study released last week was required by Congress, which wants a corrective action plan within six months. "I have no intention of waiting that long," said Gates, adding that he'd directed a plan be finished in 60 to 90 days.

A separate mental health report, released last month, recommended that after 90 days of combat, troops should get 30 days off. Some commanders have said it is difficult to spare the troops, and Gates was asked if the recommendation would be followed.

"I think, to be honest, it would be a challenge to manage that" with the number of troops in Iraq, Gates said, adding that it would be studied.

Moving troops off and onto the battlefield may not be the best solution, said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared at the press conference with Gates.

Normally, the highest casualties in a unit are in the first period of a deployment and in the last period, said Pace. "And a lot of it has to do with mind-set and having total focus. And the numbers of times that you put yourself into and out of a combat situation changes how you're thinking, what you're mentally prepared to do," he said.

On a recent visit to the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Gates presented six Purple Hearts _ decorations for the war wounded _ including one to a soldier who was still unconscious and on a respirator, he recalled Thursday.

"It was a starkly moving and emotionally powerful reminder of the sacrifices these young men and women are making on our behalf," Gates said. "It is our moral obligation and duty to ensure that they are properly cared for in mind, body and spirit when they return from the battlefield to the homeland that they have pledged to defend.

"They have done their duty, we must do ours," he said.

© 2007 The Associated Press