Pentagon to Investigate Mental Health Treatment

Earlier this week, an NPR investigation revealed that soldiers returning from Iraq with severe mental health problems often have trouble getting the treatment they need. In response, the Pentagon is forming an investigation into its treatment of soldiers with mental health issues.

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A top Pentagon official has told NPR that he has asked the U.S. Army to investigate whether officers at a major base are mistreating soldiers. These are soldiers who've returned from Iraq with serious mental health problems. A bipartisan group of senators has issued their own call for an investigation. They all say they were moved to take action after hearing reports from NPR's Daniel Zwerdling on this issue earlier this week. And Daniel has an update this morning.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: NPR found that soldiers who've come back from the war to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado have had trouble getting the help they need, even when they are suicidal.

The military's own studies show that tens of thousands of troops who've served in Iraq have symptoms of serious mental health problems. Those problems include depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.

Administration officials have said, since the U.S. invaded Iraq, that they want to heal all the troops who've come home with emotional problems. But NPR found that the system at Fort Carson doesn't work the way it should, and for two main reasons. First, it's been overwhelmed by soldiers coming back from Iraq. It can take soldiers weeks to get appointments. And second, some officers at the base say they feel contempt for soldiers who have problems, like PTSD. They haze them. They punish them. They ridicule the soldiers in public. One soldier, named Corey Davis, told me, you should see what they've done to a guy named Tyler Jennings after he started falling apart.

Mr. COREY DAVIS (U.S. Army): Tyler, this kid in my platoon, he went and, you know, trying to get help. He's an outcast now. He's not even - he's not even looked at. Even he's - no one looks at him. No one talks to him. No one says hi to him. He's not there. He's invisible.

ZWERDLING: Top officers at Fort Carson refuse to talk to NPR. But lower level supervisors like sergeants confirmed it's true, they do give soldiers who have emotional problems a hard time. Sergeants like Travis Platt(ph) and Drew Preston(ph) said that's because most of the soldiers who say they're having an emotional crisis are faking it.

Unidentified Man #1: They don't want to go back to Iraq and they're trying to blame all their life's problems on PTSD.

Unidentified Man #2: The order comes down that, you know, we're going back. And then all of a sudden, oh, I got PTSD. PTSD is pretty much like the back door to get out of the military right now.

ZWERDLING: Three U.S. senators said yesterday those kinds of attitudes are, quote, "of grave concern," unquote. Republican Christopher Bond and Democrats Barbara Boxer and Barack Obama sent a letter to the assistant secretary of defense for health. They said, We respectfully request that you undertake an investigation into the troubling allegations.

Only about an hour later, the assistant secretary told NPR that he already did, even before the senators sent their letter. William Winkenwerder said he took action after hearing NPR's investigation.

Dr. WILLIAM WINKENWERDER (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health): What I heard concerned me. It really truly did concern me. I have spoken with Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, who is the surgeon general of the United States Army, and asked him, requested that he look very carefully into this particular situation at Fort Carson and to provide a thorough report on it.

ZWERDLING: The assistant secretary and the senators all agreed that the Army has to do better. The senators wrote that soldiers at all military bases, quote, "deserve timely access to quality treatment with the full support of the chain of command," unquote.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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