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Defense secretary lauds wounded warrior care improvements

Gerry J. Gilmore - American Forces Press Service

The military has made "some significant steps forward" in caring for wounded warriors, the Defense secretary said during a Pentagon Channel interview broadcast Oct. 22.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said inpatient care provided to wounded warriors always has been world-class.

"We've never had a problem with that," he said, "and the medical treatment that our Soldiers and Marines and Airmen and Sailors get from the battlefield to these hospitals has no peer anywhere in the world."

The military has made "some significant steps forward" over the past year, Secretary Gates said, citing the services' creation of wounded warrior transition organizations.

"I think that the services have really taken a lot of forward steps in terms of improving care, having care managers who make sure that appointments get made and that they're sequenced correctly," he said.

Other improvements are under way with the disability evaluation system that's used to determine how much money injured servicemembers receive after they're discharged, Secretary Gates said, as DOD and Department of Veterans Affairs officials work together toward streamlining that process.

"We have a pilot (disability rating) program where there is just one exam and one rating between us and the VA, but it is just a pilot program," he said.

The secretary acknowledged that still more can be achieved in caring for wounded warriors.

"Part of the problem is we make decisions here and we budget money here for things, and it takes awhile, often, for that to trickle down to individual posts and bases and to the individuals involved," Secretary Gates said. "So, while I think we've accomplished a lot and we are headed absolutely in the right direction, there's no question that we still have further to go, and there's still a gap between where we want to be and where we are."

About $900 million in resources have been earmarked for treatment and research of servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, he said, and DOD officials will establish a Center for Excellence at Bethesda, Md., that will specialize in research and development in finding new treatments for PTSD and TBI.

"It will be a world-class facility at Bethesda, serving all of the services," Secretary Gates said. "There's a lot that we don't know about TBI and post-traumatic stress, so we've got a lot of experiments going on around the country."

To help change the military culture to accept that psychological injuries are as devastating as physical wounds, the secretary supported the initiative to remove a question on the security clearance form that asked servicemembers whether they ever had received psychological counseling or other kinds of mental health treatment.

There's no question, Secretary Gates said, that more military people of all ranks are seeking care for mental health issues.

"This is another area where we have a strong culture to overcome, where people basically say, 'Suck it up and get on with the job,' and so on, without realizing that people who have PTSD have suffered a wound just like they've been shot and need to be treated," he said.

The secretary credited Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. with leading his service in promoting the need for Soldiers of all ranks to care for their mental health. Noncommissioned officers of all the services, Secretary Gates said, play a key role in monitoring young troops' mental health and encouraging them to seek help, if necessary.

Changing military attitudes about mental health issues will take time, he said.

"I think changing Question 21 to where people don't have to worry about losing their security clearance or have their career affected is an important step," Secretary Gates said. "But fundamentally, it's a leadership issue in terms of setting an example, of senior officers even acknowledging that they may have had to seek help ... and set the example that way."

Secretary Gates signs condolence letters for the families of servicemembers who have died in service to their country, and he provides hand-written notes with each one. It's important, he said, for the fallen to be remembered as people and not become statistics.

Shortly after he took office, Secretary Gates said he told his staff he wanted to see photos of each fallen servicemember, as well as the hometown newspaper obituary, attached to the condolence letters he was to sign.

"I want to get to know every one of these people and the sacrifice that they'd made," he said.

Though all military members are expected to do their duty, the secretary said, the sacrifices they make in doing so must not be overlooked.

"I think not forgetting the sacrifice that has been made and not letting people become a number is absolutely essential," he said.

With a new administration taking over in January, Secretary Gates said the bonds he has forged with U.S. military members will make it hard for him to leave the Defense Department.

"The opportunity to serve with our troops and to lead them has been the best thing that's ever happened to me," he said.

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