A military psychologist suggests making troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder eligible for the Purple Heart to help remove the stigma of a disorder affecting about 20 percent of combat veterans.

Such a move would be a major change in the Purple Heart awards policy, which does not classify PTSD as a combat wound.

John E. Fortunato is chief of the Recovery and Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he treats soldiers suffering from PTSD.

During a visit to Fort Bliss on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised the center, which uses intensive individual therapy and nontraditional ways such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga to treat PTSD.

At Red River Army Depot on Friday, Gates said it was an “interesting idea” to award the Purple Heart to troops suffering from PTSD, adding the issue is “clearly something that needs to be looked into.”

On Thursday, Fortunato said PTSD is a “physical disorder, at least in part,” because it damages the brain, making it no different from shrapnel wounds.

However, an Army regulation precludes troops suffering from PTSD from being awarded the Purple Heart, he said.

“I would love to see that change, because these guys have paid at least a high — as high a price, some of them — as anybody with a traumatic brain injury, as anybody with shrapnel wound, and what it does is it says this is the wound that isn’t worthy, and I say it is,” Fortunato said.

Asked to respond to Fortunato’s comments, the Army provided a copy of Army Regulation 600-8-22 on military awards, which lays out the criteria for the Purple Heart.

The regulation defines a wound as “an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent,” such as bullets, explosives and shrapnel.

Post-traumatic stress disorders are among the injuries that do not merit the Purple Heart, along with heatstroke, frostbite, trench foot and self-inflicted wounds.

Sailors and Marines suffering from PTSD also are not eligible for the Purple Heart, Navy spokeswoman Ensign Laura Stegherr said.

To receive the Purple Heart, servicemembers must be wounded as a result of enemy action, and they must have been treated by a medical officer at the time of injury, Stegherr said in a e-mail Friday.

“PTSD does not meet these two requirements and does not meet the eligibility for awarding of a Purple Heart,” Stegherr said.

Stars and Stripes’ query to the Air Force on the matter was still open by deadline on Saturday.

Even some of the soldiers who suffer from PTSD feel that they do not deserve the Purple Heart, Fortunato said.

“Do you know what’s said is that, like [with] most other prejudices, the people with a disorder often ingest their own prejudice … So a lot of them [soldiers] have internalized PTSD phobia,” he said.

Fortunato also said it would help destigmatize PTSD if there were specific punishments for superiors who harass troops with PTSD.

Such harassment includes making fun of troops suffering from PTSD, such as when a first sergeant — who was later removed — grouped troops suffering with PTSD together and dubbed them “The Brokeback Squad,” he said.

“Until there are sanctions that make a superior pay a price for harassing a soldier with mental health problems, I don’t know that it will change that much,” Fortunato said.

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