Mideast edition, Saturday, June 16, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — The military is falling “significantly short” of providing servicemembers and families with adequate mental health care, lacking the personnel and financial resources to support the force in peace, much less war, according to a task force study.

Not since Vietnam has the U.S. military been organized to deal with large numbers of troops exposed to combat stress, Navy Vice Adm. Donald Arthur, co-chairman of the mental health task force, told Pentagon reporters during a news conference Friday to discuss the report’s findings.

Hundreds of thousands of servicemembers have been involved in two wars without a front, with repeated and extended deployments in environments “where you don’t know where the enemy is ... moment-by-moment,” Arthur said.

“The current operational tempo has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the U.S. military’s approach to psychological health,” the Task Force on Mental Health study says.

Congress chartered the task force in May 2006 to assess the care provided to military members by the different services, and the Pentagon as a whole, and offer recommendations for improvements.

The task force’s seven military members and seven civilian mental health professionals visited 38 military facilities worldwide and interviewed hundreds of servicemembers.

The team developed 92 recommendations for improvements to the system, including the following:

n Every servicemember should undergo an annual psychological health-needs assessment.

n Mental health specialists should be embedded in military units to help eliminate the stigma against seeking care.

n Give psychologists up to $15,000 in annual raises to help hire and retain them.

n Tricare, the military’s health care network, should raise its reimbursement rates for mental health care providers.

n Increase care staff so there is a ratio of five mental health caregivers, including a psychiatrist, for every 5,000 to 8,000 people.

n Improve training, which is now “insufficient and inconsistent” across the military services.

n Military assistance programs should reach more people. Alcohol-related car accidents and arrests for troops have increased, but the number of troops seen in alcohol programs has not.

S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said Friday that the Pentagon now has six months to consider the recommendations and decide which ones to adopt and how.

Improving mental health care in the military “has become Job 1 for me,” Casscells said.

On Thursday, the task force brought the report to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers who requested the study; Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; and members of the House and Senate armed service committees.

In a news conference later Thursday, Boxer and Lieberman pledged to seek money to fund the task force’s recommendations, according to The Associated Press. The lawmakers also said they would request a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to urge the Pentagon to make those changes that do not involve Congress.

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