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ARLINGTON, Va. — More than two months after a Congressional deadline had come and gone, Defense Department officials have announced that they have set up a task force to study troops’ mental health.

The 14-member Mental Health Task Force’s main job is to produce a required report for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Congress by May 2007 that lays out a long-term plan to improve the effectiveness of the military’s mental health treatments, according to a Tuesday Pentagon press release announcing the task force.

That plan is supposed to include ideas for new education programs, as well as enhanced medical services.

Also “high on the list will be steps for improving the awareness of the potential mental health conditions among service personnel and ways to improve the access and efficacy of our existing programs,” William Winkenwerder Jr., DOD’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in the release.

The board’s seven military members and seven civilians will meet for the first time next month, the release said.

The board will be co-chaired by Army Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Pentagon’s surgeon general, and a non-DOD representative who will be elected by the task force membership, the release said.

Congress mandated the creation of an independent organization to scrutinize the way the services are handling mental health issues in the fiscal 2006 military spending bill, which President Bush signed into law Jan 6.

On May 4, with no task force yet appointed, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., lit into the Pentagon on May 4, saying the military faces a “mental health crisis.”

In a letter to Rumsfeld, Boxer called the delay in appointing the task force “abhorrent,” noting that 25 soldiers committed suicide 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,” Boxer wrote.

Pentagon spokesmen attributed the delays in appointing the panel in part to the long process of conducting necessary background security checks on all government employees, even temporary members of such task forces.

On Thursday the Senate inserted a mental health amendment sponsored by Boxer in its version of the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill. The provision would require more detailed screening for mental health illnesses among returning troops and more access to mental health care for all troops.

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