More U.S. troops have died this year from suicides than combat as haunting images from difficult tours in Iraq and Afghanistan travel back home with them. The military has tried hard to soften the “suck-it-up” culture that has prevented some veterans from seeking the necessary mental health evaluations and treatment, but some setbacks have occurred. The good news is that military leaders and politicians are continuing their efforts to turn the tide.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced a bill Monday that could improve access and the quality of mental health care for service members and their families. As chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, she plans to hold the first hearing today. The bill spins off the discovery that as many as 285 soldiers – or 40 percent of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – had those findings reversed at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma since 2007. A PTSD diagnosis can come with lifetime benefits, so a lot rides on those decisions. Murray became concerned that costs were becoming a factor in overriding legitimate diagnoses when she learned that a Madigan forensic psychiatrist urged team members to be cognizant of the bottom line. It was at Madigan that many veterans were accused of faking symptoms to gain benefits. Many of those PTSD diagnoses were restored after news of the high reversal rate.
Early this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at a Senate hearing that he has ordered all branches of the military to review mental health-related diagnoses going back to 2001. The Army is already undertaking such a review. Panetta expressed his frustration with the inconsistent system of evaluation and treatment.
Murray’s bill aims to standardize the suicide-prevention program and allow outside experts to assist the Department of Defense in adopting a higher quality of care. Assistance would also be extended to family members who are struggling with the stresses of deployments. Other measures would improve the training and staffing levels for mental health services.
In another bill, which Murray introduced last week, veterans and their spouses would gain access to in vitro fertilization if combat wounds render troops unable to procreate. The injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices have left an inordinate number of service members with trauma to the spinal cord, urinary tracts and reproductive organs. The bill would also assist female veterans with child care, so they can keep their medical and mental health appointments.
The fertility and child care issues are real, says Joan Leid of the VA Medical Center in Walla Walla. She told the Tri-City Herald the need is a result of the growing number of women serving in the military.
The toll from these two wars presents a continuing challenge because of the unique way they’re fought and the changing makeup of the military. We owe it to service members to conduct an honest assessment of the fallout. Not only will it assist in delivering needed care, it will force leaders to face up to the true costs of combat.
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