Casey Pledges Progress on Mental Health Resources
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2009 The Army has worked hard on developing programs to maintain the psychological health of the service, but much more needs to be done, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said yesterday.
Appearing on the CNN program “State of the Union,” Casey reflected on his “gut-wrenching” and “up-lifting” visit to Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 6, the day after 13 people were murdered in a shooting spree, allegedly by an Army psychiatrist.
The general said the experience was gut-wrenching “because the suspect is one of our own, and it happened on one of our bases.” But he added that he was heartened by stories of soldiers rushing to one another’s aid. “But it's a kick in the gut,” he said.
Because the alleged gunman is Muslim, the general expressed concern about the possibility of backlash against other Muslim soldiers. “I’ve asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that,” he said. “As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.”
About 3,000 Muslim soldiers serve in the Army. The general said he doesn’t believe there is discrimination against them, but that continued speculation on the alleged gunman’s motivation might cause a backlash.
Casey emphasized that the Army has stressed mental fitness for several years and has launched campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with seeking health for psychological trauma. The service needs to do more, the general acknowledged, but has made a good start in bringing to the forefront the need to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury – the signature psychological wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment is not just an Army problem, Casey noted. “This is a societal problem that we all have to wrestle with,” he said.
The Army has hired more than 900 additional medical health providers in the last two years, Casey said, and the Tricare military health system has hired more than 2,800.
In addition, Casey said, a Defense Department military family life consultants program sends certified behavioral health specialists to Army brigades returning from deployment.
“It is a challenge, across the country, in the number of mental health providers that are available, particularly in rural areas,” Casey said. “It’s something that we all need to work together.”
The Army is stressed and out of balance, Casey acknowledged. Many soldiers have deployed a number of times, and the service needs to increase the amount of “dwell time” soldiers spend at home stations between deployments. “We started in 2007 with a program to get ourselves back in balance by 2011,” he said.
The Army has added 40,000 active duty soldiers since 2007 and has ended the 15-month deployments that were necessary to maintain the surge in Iraq. Officials also are working to eliminate the practice known as “Stop-Loss,” in which the Army holds on to selected soldiers beyond their enlistment contracts.
“We’re beginning to come off of Stop-Loss, and we’re beginning to gradually increase the time the soldiers spend at home between deployments,” Casey said. “We need to continue to make progress toward that goal of one year out, two years back, for the active force [and] one year out, four years back, for the Guard and Reserve.”
Studies show that after a year in combat, it takes about two years to get stress levels back to normal garrison levels, Casey said.
Suicides have increased in the Army since 2004, and last year, the service exceeded the civilian rate.
“Unfortunately, the progression will remain about the same this year,” Casey said. “We’ll exceed the number of suicides last year.”
The general noted the Army conducted a “suicide stand-down” across the entire force.
“One of the things as we looked at the challenges facing the Army was that we felt we were a little light on the preventive measures -- in giving soldiers the skills that they need to prevent mental problems and suicides,” he said. “So we instituted in October a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which is a long-term development program designed to build resilience in our soldiers. And it’s already implemented across the force.
“Tomorrow, we’ll have 150 sergeants and a few family members up at University of Pennsylvania going through the first course to build master resilience trainers,” he continued. “And our goal is by next year to have one of these trainers in every battalion in the Army. So we’re looking at it both from the preventive side and from the assistance and treatment side.”
The service continues to learn from incidents, and will learn from the suicide prevention program and the Fort Hood tragedy, the general said.
“We have to go back and look at ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions. Are we doing the right things?” he said. “It's way too early to draw any kind of specific conclusions from it, but we’ll ask ourselves the hard questions about what we’re doing and about what changes we should make as a result of this incident at Fort Hood.”