But “invisible wounds” -- the war wounds that sometimes affect soldiers’ mental health -- are an area that need more medical and policy attention, said Gates, who added that such wounds are occurring with more frequency and intensity -- or perhaps being better diagnosed today than in past conflicts.
At the summit, U.S. soldiers, family members, and surviving family members of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan were invited to offer their thoughts on the quality of care they have received from government agencies.Gates acknowledged that there had been bureaucratic failures in recent years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which undercut the quality of care for some wounded soldiers. But he called attention to new initiatives in place to improve coordination between the agencies that work to help the wounded vets at that hospital.
He specifically cited the disability evaluation system, which was, in reality, seriously hampered by bureaucracy. The previous system, for instance, used two separate ratings from the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs in evaluating soldiers’ disability. The new system in place relies on one disability rating, said Gates.
Pilot testing on this new approach reveals a “tighter handshake” between the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs, which could cut in half the amount of time required to transition a veteran to full compensation, Gates said.
Concerning the “invisible” wounds that can affect a soldier’s mental health, Gates first discussed brain injuries.
The U.S. military has established new layers of service for soldiers who may be affected by “traumatic brain injury” (TBI) in the form of more detailed reporting, screening and evaluation, Gates said. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center has received mreo funding that will allow for all TBI-related incidents and information to be consolidated, he said.
“We’ve invested $900 million in this effort, which includes $300 million in research,” Gates said. “And while we’ve learned a lot about how to better care for those with TBI over the past few years, we are poised to learn a great deal more.”
Not every soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan has been willing to seek out mental health services when in need because there is a “stigma” attached to post traumatic stress, said Gates.
Some soldiers suffering from mental health injuries have resisted seeking the necessary medical help because they are concerned about losing their security clearance and missing out on career opportunities, he observed.
In an effort to encourage service members to come forward when they are experiencing mental trauma, Gates said that the Defense Department earlier this year changed its policy with regard to Question 21 on the federal security clearance form.
Going forward, service members are not required to relay any information about counseling services connected with combat experience in response to this question on mental health, said Gates.
“The conflict we are in is the longest America has waged with an all-volunteer force since the Revolutionary War,” he said. “At the heart of that volunteer force is a contract between the United States of America and the men and women who serve in our military. That contract is simultaneously legal, social and indeed sacred.”
“When young Americans step forward of their own free will to serve, they will do so with the expectation that they and their families will be properly taken care of, should something happen on the battlefield,” he said.
As for the war, Pentagon reports show that it is effectively over in most provinces. (See related story.)
There were eight U.S. combat casualties in Iraq in September 2008 compared to 43 in September 2007, a decline of about 81 percent, according to a CNSnews.com database the reaches back to March 2003 when the invasion was launched. This past July marked the lowest combat casualty total of the entire war.
The downward trend in U.S. casualties that has continued in recent months first became evident in the summer and fall of 2007, after offensive operations were launched against al Qaeda.
On a related note, instances of IED-caused casualties have dropped by almost 90 percent since the troop surge was fully implemented in June 2007, according to the CNSNews.com database. (See related story.)