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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sens. to DOD: Stop Sending Troops with PTSD Back to Combat

In answer to last weekend's revealing Hartford Courant piece reporting that the DOD was returning troops suffering with posttraumatic stress disorder back into the combat zone, anti-anxiety medications in hand, the Courant now reports that Senator Barbara Boxer has sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Senator Joe Lieberman has also come out publicly to ask for an investigation into these charges.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the Hartford Courant:

U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman called Wednesday for a federal investigation of mental health screening for troops deploying to Iraq, after The Courant reported in a series that mentally ill service members are being sent to war and kept there, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressing "disgust" at a revelation in the series that the military was sending troops with post-traumatic stress disorder back into combat. "You cannot simply have doctors prescribe psychiatric drugs such as Zoloft and send these men and women back to a combat zone," Boxer wrote. "No matter what the Defense Department's recruiting shortfalls, it is absolutely immoral to send soldiers who have been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD back into a combat zone."

Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent letters Wednesday to the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general of the Defense Department, asking each agency to investigate the military's pre-deployment screening practices. Lieberman said he was particularly concerned by The Courant's finding that among troops who indicated a possible mental health problem, only 6.5 percent were referred to a mental health specialist before they were deemed deployable. "Clearly, our soldiers are experiencing unusually high levels of stress," Lieberman wrote in his letter to the inspector general, "but if the military is doing an inadequate job of assessing the severity of mental health problems in those deploying, and then placing them in further danger, their lives are [at] greater risk."

Lieberman, D-Conn., said Wednesday that he was also "exploring legislative options" to improve mental health screening for troops, which consists of one question on a self-reported questionnaire. "We put our faith in the men and women of our armed services to protect us every day; they should expect and deserve to have the same faith in us," Lieberman said. The Courant's investigation, he added, "reveals that the deployment system's faulty implementation of mental health screening has betrayed the trust of our soldiers and their families. This is unacceptable and inexcusable."

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, William Winkenwerder Jr., this week defended the practices of the DOD regarding mental health screening and treatment provided to its combat troops. Army Surgeon General Kevin C. Kiley also defended current practices, adding that he would support additional screening, "if we have evidence it would make a difference."

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who has pushed for the military to conduct face-to-face mental health evaluations of returning troops, said Wednesday she believed using a questionnaire for pre-deployment screening may be inadequate as well. "If they self-report, you're never going to get a full [mental health] assessment," DeLauro said. "You've got to see them when they're going in; you've got to see them when they're going out."

DeLauro said she was also concerned by The Courant's findings that the military was relying increasingly on the use of antidepressants in the war zone, sometimes with minimal counseling and monitoring. Antidepressants carry government warnings about a risk of side effects, including increased suicidal urges, when they are first prescribed. "We've now established a link between antidepressants and suicide. We know you have to strictly monitor them," she said. "Who's making that assessment [in the combat zone]?"

The military also uses a self-reported questionnaire to assess the mental health of troops completing tours in Iraq - a practice some say fails to detect PTSD and other combat-related disorders. "We can't be satisfied with questionnaires," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Wednesday in a statement. "We need to give our troops and our veterans hands-on care, no matter what it costs."

The Hartford Courant does it again. Great reporting.

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