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American Forces Press Service

Gates, Pace Pledge to Fix Defense Mental Health System

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2007 – Current Defense Department mental health efforts fall significantly short of adequately serving servicemembers and their families, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said fixing the program is an achievable vision.

“This is something we can, will and must get fixed,” Gates said during a Pentagon news conference today.

Gates said he has reviewed the findings of the Defense Mental Health Task Force. The group presented its findings June 15.

Gates said he supports the task force’s recommendation to build a culture of support for psychological health in the department. He wants to remove the stigma some servicemembers feel in simply seeking mental health assistance.

“One recommendation I support and will aggressively pursue is removing the question about mental health treatment from the security clearance questionnaire,” he said. “Too many (people) avoid seeking mental health help for fear of losing their security clearances.”

The secretary said he has spoken about the mental health stigma issue with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he said they will move forward with strong leadership. “Leaders at every level must follow suit,” he said.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace said he and the service chiefs are energized on the issue. “We are intent on making sure we provide the proper leadership to make sure that everybody that needs any kind of assistance with mental health gets it,” he said.

Federal law calls on the department to provide Congress a corrective action plan within six months of the submission of the report.

“I have no intention of waiting that long,” Gates said. “I have directed that the action plan for the implementation of the 95 DoD Task Force recommendations be completed within 60 to 90 days.”

Department officials also are looking at 331 further recommendations dealing with broad mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Other studies continue, and Gates said he believes more recommendations will come before him.

A joint Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs team is working to address all the shortcomings in the mental health care servicemembers and their families receive, he said. “Jointly, we have already begun implementation of corrective actions and will continue this process until a fully responsive process is in place for our men and women,” he said.

Gates spoke about his recent visit to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He presented Purple Hearts to six servicemembers wounded in Iraq.

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

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