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WASHINGTON — If the Army had warned her to watch for symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, Stefanie Pelkey believes she could have prevented her husband from killing himself.

“I did not suspect it because I didn’t know anything about it,” Pelkey, herself a former Army captain, told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

“I thought we were just having marital problems. The first time I heard anything about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was when a private therapist diagnosed him, a week before his death.”

Defense Department officials this week said they are seeing positive results in their efforts to respond to troops’ mental health issues, but still need to do more to prepare families to watch for problems and get servicemembers quicker access to counselors.

On Tuesday, Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told a House Armed Services subcommittee that mental health evacuations from Iraq dropped 25 percent from 2003 to 2004, and suicides there dropped by more than half in that time.

More postdeployment assessments have been put in place to monitor troops for PTSD and related illnesses, he said, and all four services are continuing to collect data on rates and treatment access among their members.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley said Tuesday that nearly 60 percent of soldiers returning from war are not fully aware of available treatment and counseling, and the subcommittee heard testimony from a pair of soldiers who received medical care late because of delays in finding doctors and ignorance about stress disorders.

Similarly, Pelkey said a lack of access to PTSD experts contributed to her husband’s problems.

Capt. Michael John Pelkey was among the first soldiers to return from deployment in Iraq, in July 2003. She said that her husband felt anxious and sought advice from military counselors, but dropped the issue after he was told several times it could take weeks or months to get an appointment.

As time passed he began having bouts of forgetfulness, intimacy issues and vivid nightmares. Pelkey said her husband began carrying a loaded gun around with him, even sleeping with it.

“He wasn’t in Iraq, but his mind was there day in and day out,” she said.

About 18 months after his return the couple sought marriage therapy through Tricare, and an outside expert identified the soldier’s various health problems as related to PTSD. Pelkey said she was relieved by the news and began seeking treatment options, but her husband shot himself just a few days later.

“The only counseling he got after deployment was about back aches and knee pains,” she said. “As a spouse, if I had been informed sooner, not only would I have understood what he was going through, I would have urged him to get help sooner.”

Members of the veterans affairs committee said while improvements have been made in identifying PTSD cases, more needs to be done to educate families and ensure that soldiers can receive prompt medical care.

“We talk about the ‘Army family,’” said chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind. “Somewhere in there, we had a failure to take care of one of our own.”


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