Saturday, June 30, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
For more than 10 years of war, America’s finest men and women have repeatedly deployed to distant battlefields to defend our nation. They have performed magnificently, enduring the brutal and unpredictable nature of modern warfare in marketplaces, road, and fields.
Each of them has come back changed.
As our service members return home to American supermarkets, highways, and ball games, the stress of combat often continues. For some it happens in a crowded place, for others it is when they are alone. All of a sudden, they are in a fight once again: one that is harder to see, harder to understand, and leaves too many fighting on their own.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a cost of war that has been paid by generations of America’s veterans. It has been called shell-shock, combat fatigue, hysteria and other names. It took decades to accurately recognize the nature of this injury and how to help veterans heal.
At the Department of Defense, we believe the unseen wounds of war are every bit as pressing — and every bit as treatable — as the visible wounds that have left a permanent physical mark on thousands of our heroes. While we have made great strides in treating wounds from IED blasts and bullets, we still struggle with the scale of unseen injuries caused by combat stress and their manifestation in substance abuse, depression, relationship issues, and suicide. But steadily, we are developing a strategy to confront this challenge.
First, addressing post traumatic stress begins with leadership. All of those in command positions throughout the military, beginning with junior officers and NCOs, need to be sensitive to signs of stress in the ranks. Military leaders ensure their units are physically fit. We must elevate mental fitness to the same level of importance.
Second, we must continue to expand access to quality behavioral and mental health care. The military services are embedding behavioral health professionals into line units and primary care clinics. We now have more than 9,000 mental health professionals in military hospitals and clinics, a 35 percent increase in three years. As a result, the number of PTSD cases diagnosed increased by more than 25 percent, even as the total number of deployed troops decreased.
There are several additional steps the Department of Defense is taking to improve care. All of the military services are now systematically reviewing the PTSD screening process for wounded warriors to help ensure we provide the best holistic care. Earlier this month, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund announced plans to construct state-of-the-art interdisciplinary mental health research centers at nine of our largest military installations.
We are also working to reduce knowledge gaps in patient history for service members moving to health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Responding to a challenge from President Obama, we are on track to unify the electronic health-care record systems of both departments by 2017. This will greatly reduce bureaucratic red tape and provide VA doctors with up-to-date patient information, including combat medical records.
Third, we must enlist all Americans to address the stigma of getting help. We know we’re not reaching every service member and veteran. I urge you to talk with America’s veterans. Recognize that normal responses to traumatic events include feeling scared, anxious, sad or guilty. Yet, if these feelings persist after a month, or get worse, or start to return — something may not be right.
We want our entire military family — those who are serving today and those who have served in the past — to know that seeking help is a sign of strength and inspiration for others to do the same. In partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, we maintain the Military and Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. Since 2007, this line has taken 600,000 calls, made 93,000 referrals and rescued 22,000 from potential suicide. These mental health professionals are available 24/7 to address immediate issues or help those in need find care across the country.
The end of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan will ease some of the strain on our troops but post traumatic stress will remain a critical issue for decades to come. The Department of Defense remains determined to urgently address the unseen wounds of war. We ask all Americans to join us in helping to protect those who have fought to protect us.
Leon Panetta is the secretary of the Department of Defense.