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Media Availability with Secretary Gates at the Fort Bliss Restoration and Resilience Center, Fort Bliss, Texas

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
May 01, 2008

                SEC. GATES:  Good morning.   

 

                I've just had a tour of an amazing facility, the Fort Bliss Restoration and Resilience Center.   

 

                Q     Can you speak a little louder -- (off mike)? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Just had an extraordinary experience visiting the Fort Bliss Restoration and Resilience Center.  They are doing some amazing things here in terms of helping soldiers who want to remain soldiers but who have been wounded with post-traumatic stress disorder.  And it's a multi-month effort by a lot of caring people, and they are showing some real success in restoring these soldiers. 

 

                I think it's an extraordinary program.  It's a prototype, and one of the things that I will carry back to Washington with me is the question of whether we can replicate this at other posts around the country.   

 

                They're also developing techniques in terms of how to help soldiers in the theater deal with the stress and giving them tools to be able to deal with the circumstances that they face.  And these are clearly worth additional attention as well.  So I was very impressed. 

 

                There are two aspects, it seems to me, in dealing with post- traumatic stress syndrome -- disorder, and that is, first, developing the care and the treatment of these soldiers, such as is going on here at this center at Fort Bliss, and where we need to provide additional resources and additional capabilities to provide the treatment.  The second, and in some ways perhaps equally challenging, is to remove the stigma that is associated with PTSD and to encourage soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who encounter these problems to seek help. 

 

                A year ago last February, the Army inspector general concluded that a number of soldiers were not seeking help, in part because they felt that seeking mental health help would endanger their security clearance and perhaps their career.  This all ties back to what we call the infamous question 21 on the security clearance form, which is used throughout the government. 

 

                So we undertook about eight months ago to get that question changed, so that it would be clear to soldiers filling out that form that any counseling that they had sought, associated with their combat stress, was not going to count against them in terms of getting their security clearance.   

 

                We have finally succeeded in doing that.  It's a government-wide form so it took longer than I would have hoped.  But it's done.  It now is clear, to people who answer that question, that they can answer no if they have sought help to deal with their combat stress, in general terms.   

 

                We also are putting a letter, on top of every one of those forms, cosigned by the undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, David Chu, and the undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, James Clapper, that basically explains what this is all about, and urges our men and women in uniform, who are exhibiting the symptoms of PTSD, to seek help, and that this is not going to put in jeopardy their security clearances or their careers.   

 

                The most important thing for us now is to get the word out, as far as we can, to every man and woman in uniform, to let them know about this change, to let the know the efforts that are under way to remove the stigma, and to encourage them to seek help when they are in the theater or when they return from the theater.   

 

                So this is a very important issue for us.  As I've said for a long time, we have no higher priority in the Department of Defense, apart from the war itself, than taking care of our men and women in uniform, who have been wounded, who have both visible and unseen wounds.  And frankly I think that this center here is illustrative of what can be done, and that we can return soldiers back to duty in good mental health.   

 

                I'll take a few questions.   

 

                Q     Prime Minister Maliki is sending a delegation to Iran to discuss Iranian meddling in Iraq.   

 

                How crucial is that to stemming the surge in violence in Iraq, which this month has reached a seven-month high?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think it's a very important step, and I think that the Iranians do care about what the shape of their future relationship with Iraq will be.  And I think that, in essence, forcing them to make a choice -- do they want to work with the government of Iraq, or are they going to subvert the government of Iraq?  And for a Shi'ite prime minister to send a delegation to Iran, presumably to confront the Iranians with that kind of a choice, I think, is a healthy development. 

 

                Q     If he comes back empty-handed, then what? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't know how you evaluate the success or failure of a mission like that, except over time and looking back and seeing if the supply of weapons and training and so on, has diminished. 

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, El Paso Times, Chris Roberts.  Can you talk a little bit about how Fort Bliss fits into Army transformation?  And will there -- is there any consideration of further missions, further soldiers coming here, expanding use of the training ranges, which they're investing millions and millions of dollars in? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, as you may know, I've delayed the return of two brigades from Germany because the housing wasn't ready for them and I didn't want to see them have to move into inadequate temporary housing and then move again when the final construction was complete. So I think that those two brigades will be the final major additions, at least for the time being, in terms of our plans.   

 

                But I think that, you know, Fort Bliss is clearly going to grow by something like 20(,000) to 25,000 soldiers, and a lot of them with families.  So it's a significant increase. 

 

                One point I'd like to make about this center that really impresses me -- this is all local initiative.  This was all undertaken by Dr. Fortunato, who was able to get the support of the installation commander and the garrison commander, and people up and down the line, who made the building available.  So this is a local initiative. 

 

                And the temptation may be to try and create some great national center.   

 

                And one of the things the doctor made clear to me was, part of the reason this succeeds is because it's relatively small, and you can develop personal relationships with -- the therapists can develop relationships with the soldiers.  So I think this model is worth a very serious look. 

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, can you talk a little bit about some of the people -- did you talk to some of the patients -- and their input on what they think of this program? 

 

                And secondly, do you expect to try and put money into the budget to fund similar programs like this at other bases, or how would you do that? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, that's certainly something I'm going to explore when I get back to Washington.  And my sense is that both the chief of staff and vice chief of staff of the Army have been here, and I'd like to talk to them about it and see what their thinking is.   

 

                There were no soldiers here this morning.  I basically met a number of the therapists, and they explained to me the nature of the treatment that they give the soldiers.   

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, could you talk about the -- 

 

                (Cross talk.) 

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, can I ask you -- the question 21 issue -- in the broader context, how do you get a force that's really built on toughness and that sort of mind-set -- how do you get them to actually seek care and -- (off mike)? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I'm no doctor, but I suspect that the first thing is to get them to admit they're human.  And they have -- 

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- within the climate and the culture? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that's part of the issue of removing the stigma, is making it clear that you can be tough and seek help for dealing with these problems.  After all, you're tough, and you go into the hospital when you receive a physical wound.  That doesn't mean you're weak in some way.  And so why wouldn't you when you've received a psychological wound?  It's the same difference.  They're all wounded. 

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- talk about more Americans against the war. They compare it to another Vietnam -- Fort Bliss.  Your own feelings about that? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Just in terms of the number of Americans who are against the war?   

 

                Q     Fighting in Iraq. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think the question is, at this point, not whether or not we should be in Iraq.  We are there.  The question is, what's the endgame?  How do we handle the final phases of this conflict in a way that do not leave us with a bigger problem in Iraq than we started with?  How do we end up with a government in Iraq that is an ally in the war on terror, can defend itself, is basically representative of its people? 

 

                So we are where we are, and we have to manage properly how we get from here to where Americans would like us to be, and that is basically out of Iraq in any sense of a major combat role.   

 

                My own view is, we are going to require a residual presence in Iraq, of some size, for a period of years, as a stabilization force to help go after al Qaeda, to continue training Iraqis.  But I think that despite our impatience as we enter the sixth year of the war, we still have to handle the end of the war and the end of our participation, in major combat, in a sensible and thoughtful way.   

 

                (Cross talk.)   

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, how do you think the changes to the mental health policy will help soldiers that are having problems readjusting to life, you know, back in the United States?   

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think the key focus of this program is to return soldiers to duty who want to return to duty, rather than sending them to a board for a disability and then leaving the Army.   

 

                I have the impression they have had -- I think they have had -- they have a total of 36 soldiers in the program right now.  12 -- one aspect of it is, it's a multi-month intensive therapy.  The first three months, they put in 35 hours a week here; the second three months, about 21 hours a week.   

 

                They're all volunteers.  They come here because they want to. And I think the key is seeing how we can take these and other techniques to help the larger number of soldiers, who have had this kind of a psychological wound, and restore them to duty.   

 

                Thank you all.

 

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