WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said officials remain committed to the task force and improving mental health services, and the members and first meeting of the new group should be announced shortly.

She said part of the delay was caused by adding non-defense employees to the task force, which requires officials to do background checks and make them temporary government employees. That process usually takes about six months, but was completed in just under five for this task force.

“Nominees are in place,” Krenke said. “Staff for the nominees have been contracted and have begun work to set up the first meeting.”

Still, officials 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.

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