Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hartford Courant: DOD Ignoring Troop Mental Health

What a week. The first strike was the GAO Report [pdf] stating that only 22% (1 out of 5) of troops who are at risk for developing combat PTSD -- as determined via a mental health screening form, the PDHA [pdf], administered by the DOD -- are referred for further mental health evaluations. The DOD then released its response following the media's coverage of the report stating:

"The level of our effort and our outreach is unprecedented," he said. "We have broken new ground."

New ground, indeed. Today comes the news that the Hartford Courant has completed a exhaustive report based on Freedom of Information Act requests which concludes that "U.S. military troops with severe psychological problems have been sent to Iraq or kept in combat, even when superiors have been aware of signs of mental illness." Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the AP:

The Hartford Courant, citing records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act and more than 100 interviews of families and military personnel, reported numerous cases in which the military failed to follow its own regulations in screening, treating and evacuating mentally unfit troops from Iraq. In 1997, Congress ordered the military to assess the mental health of all deploying troops. The newspaper, citing Pentagon statistics, said fewer than 1 in 300 service members were referred to a mental health professional before shipping out for Iraq as of October 2005.

Twenty-two U.S. troops committed suicide in Iraq last year, accounting for nearly one in five of all non-combat deaths and the highest suicide rate since the war started, the newspaper said.

Some service members who committed suicide in 2004 and 2005 were kept on duty despite clear signs of mental distress, sometimes after being prescribed antidepressants with little or no mental health counseling or monitoring, the Courant reported. Those findings conflict with regulations adopted last year by the Army that caution against the use of antidepressants for 'extended deployments.'

"I can't imagine something more irresponsible than putting a soldier suffering from stress on (antidepressants), when you know these drugs can cause people to become suicidal and homicidal," said Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a New York-based advocacy group. "You're creating chemically activated time bombs."

I posted on this issue on March 20th.

At the time, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the DOD was reinserting troops back into the battlefield while prescribed anti-anxiety medications. Senator Barbra Boxer was, in turn, planning to address the controversy through the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health that was scheduled to get underway in April.

Well, that task force has yet to begin its work. Why? Some details from last week's Stars & Stripes:

Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer blasted the Pentagon again Tuesday for missing a deadline to appoint a task force to study troops’ mental health, saying the military faces a “mental health crisis.” Defense officials acknowledged they missed the April 7 target but said the panel is being assembled quicker than comparable task forces, and will be in place in coming weeks.

Happen to catch that pattern? Again, the DOD responds that they're doing better than comparable task forces, so why are you complaining, Boxer? What's your hurry?

The task force, mandated by Congress in December as part of the 2006 military spending bills, is designed to be an independent voice on how the services handle mental health treatment issues. The 14-member board will be half military personnel and half civilian appointees, several of whom will be medical experts.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Boxer called the delay in appointing the task force “abhorrent,” noting that post-traumatic stress disorder and related problems still are major concerns. She also pointed to 25 suicides among active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, up from 20 soldiers the year before. “I find it simply astonishing that the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis facing our Armed Forces does not compel you to action,” she wrote.

Again, what's your hurry, Boxer? It's just the mental health of our troops in the battlefield. No biggie!
[O]fficials with Boxer’s office said the senator has not received any feedback from the DOD and won’t be satisfied until the task force meets for the first time. They also said even if the group begins meeting soon, the department already is about a month behind schedule.

Task force members are required within a year of their appointment to submit a report to the defense secretary and Congress on a long-term plan on ways to improve the effectiveness of the military’s mental health treatments, including ideas for new education programs and medical services.

Highly recommend taking a look back at my March post for additional details and contex on what's been going on with this issue behind the scenes. Back to the AP article:

"I'm concerned that people who are symptomatic are being sent back. That has not happened before in our country," said Dr. Arthur S. Blank, Jr., a Yale-trained psychiatrist who helped to get post-traumatic stress disorder recognized as a diagnosis after the Vietnam War.

The Army's top mental health expert, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, acknowledged that some deployment practices, such as sending service members diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome back into combat, have been driven in part by a troop shortage. "The challenge for us ... is that the Army has a mission to fight. And, as you know, recruiting has been a challenge," she said. "And so we have to weigh the needs of the Army, the needs of the mission, with the soldiers' personal needs." Ritchie insisted the military works hard to prevent suicides, but said that is a challenge because every soldier has access to a weapon.

Commanders, not medical professionals, have final say over whether a troubled soldier is retained in the war zone. Ritchie and other military officials said they believe most commanders are alert to mental health problems and are open to referring troubled soldiers for treatment. "Your average commander doesn't want to deal with a whacked-out soldier. But on the other hand, he doesn't want to send a message to his troops that if you act up, he's willing to send you home," said Maj. Andrew Efaw, a judge advocate general officer in the Army Reserves who handled trial defense for soldiers in northern Iraq last year.

The mind, literally, boggles.

Here's What YOU Can Do

Since it's through politics -- via our legislators -- that programs, bills, and laws are made, making this issue a big part of our platform as we move forward is the surest way for us all to win.

Don't Forget to Read the Groundbreaking Report

The Hartford Courant report is now up on their website (had to make do with the AP piece for the diary). It's an indepth article -- 5 pages long online -- so I would recommend everyone take a spin over to read through it if you're interested in this topic.

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