Hats off to Adm. Michael Mullen, the Pentagon’s top uniformed officer, for taking a leadership role in combating post-traumatic stress disorder among returning combat troops.
Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is calling for all returning combat troops, including the commanders, to undergo screening for post-traumatic stress with a mental health professional, a move aimed at stemming an epidemic of psychological issues among veterans.
“The PTS issue is something we just all have to focus on,” Mullen said. “I think it’s a bigger problem than we know.”
Mullen said troops are reluctant to acknowledge psychological problems for fear of showing weakness. They now fill out questionnaires after combat tours that help determine if they have suffered psychological damage. They’re examined by medical professionals for physical injuries, but not by mental health experts.
“I’m at a point where I believe we have to give a (mental health) screening to everybody to help remove the stigma of raising your hand,” Mullen said. “`Leaders must lead on this issue, or it will affect us dramatically down the road.”
Mullen’s proposal is a great start because it focuses on active-duty personnel who can be ordered around. And if implemented properly, it will reduce the stigma both for active-duty troops and others.
But it’s only a proposal at this stage. Mullen doesn’t know when it would start, what it would cost, or where’s he’s going to be able to find the psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to carry it out.
So this is a perfect time for me to make some suggestions that will help the admiral achieve his goal.
1) Expand the plan so it includes National Guard and Reserve personnel returning from combat. Their rates for PTSD are abnormally high because they tend to be older soldiers with families who never really thought signing up as a weekend warrior would land them in a combat zone.
2) Many troops develop PTSD six months to a year after their return. Soldiers should be checked for combat stress every six month for the first two years after returning from combat. Then at each annual physical exam, there should be a mental health component.
3) Crisis response teams, including a personnel officer and a chaplain, are invaluable in tracking down the soldiers who begin to exhibit problems, either on the job or during drill weekends. For National Guard troops in California and Montana, it has been very useful to have mental health counselors on base during drill weekends to chat with soldiers about any developing problems.
4) This doesn’t begin to address PTSD among the millions of vets who’ve left active duty, and the VA is currently swamped by the number of earlier-era vets — particularly the ‘Nam vets traumatized by the current conflict. The Pentagon should be working hand-in-hand with the VA to utilize effective techniques in common. But it will ultimately be up to Congress to provide the funding to begin to meet a massive backload.
These are some of the steps that the Montana National Guard has taken to become a national model in assessing PTSD among its returning combat troops and its veterans. For more information on the Montana model, check out my book: Faces of Combat, PTSD & TBI. I just got my first shipment of books from the printer this afternoon, so it should be in bookstores within days.