Pentagon Holds Mental Health Treatment Hearings

The Pentagon's "Task Force on Mental Health" is holding three days of hearings on how well U.S. servicemen and women are being treated for mental health issues when they return from overseas duty.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Consider all the thousands and thousands of troops who've rotated through Iraq, and then consider this: military studies show that at least 20 to 25 percent of those troops come back with symptoms of serious mental health disorders.

The Pentagon formed a taskforce on mental health recently to find out if those troops are getting the help they need. And over the last few months, the taskforce has held hearings in Texas and California. Yesterday, they gathered near the Pentagon.

And as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, one vet told the taskforce there's a mental health crisis at Colorado's Fort Carson.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: This taskforce didn't even exist six months ago. So when the Army Surgeon General started the meeting yesterday...

Lieutenant General KEVIN C. KILEY (U.S. Army; Army Surgeon General): Good morning and welcome to this session of the DOD Taskforce on Mental Health...

ZWERDLING: It was a symbol that critics are forcing the Pentagon to take these issues more seriously. One of the catalysts for all this was Barbara Boxer. She's a Democratic senator from California. Boxer says she was getting frantic calls from troops coming back from the wars. They and their families were telling her horror stories about how they were suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but they couldn't get the military to help them.

So Boxer wrote a bill - and Congress passed it - that ordered the secretary of defense to set up this taskforce to figure out how to get things better. One of the witnesses yesterday helped draft mental health policy at the Pentagon. Colonel Bob Ireland said some officials in the military still don't think that treating emotional problems is a priority.

Colonel BOB IRELAND: It's really got to come from the top. So the bottom line is we have to get everybody on the same sheet of music, from senior civilian leadership, political appointees, line leadership and then the support.

ZWERDLING: NPR reported two weeks ago that some officers and supervisors have contempt for troops who come back from the war with mental health problems. In fact, we found that soldiers at Fort Carson in Colorado often can't get the help they need even when they're feeling desperate. One of them flew to Washington this week to tell the taskforce what's going on.

Andrew Pagani has left the service now, but he volunteers in his spare time to help soldiers who are still at Fort Carson. An Army colonel on the taskforce named Angela Pereira asked Pagani this question:

Colonel ANGELA PEREIRA (U.S. Army): What would you say are the primary issues that are preventing airmen, seamen, soldiers, Marines from getting care when they when they need it?

ZWERDLING: Pagani told the panel that when soldiers at Fort Carson tried to get help, their officers and supervisors sometimes punished them.

Mr. ANDREW PAGANI (Former U.S. Army Soldier): I have encountered soldiers who have been physically beaten. I've encountered soldiers who were disciplined with a BB gun to become men. When they come back, for example, with a profile that says that they're not go to the range or carry weapons, they are literally, and I quote, they are being put into what is called in units, the (censored) up platoon. They are being called (censored) backs. That platoon stands 20 feet back from the rest of the company. And then when the other soldiers see this type of treatment and this type of behavior, they say to themselves, I'm not going to mental health.

ZWERDLING: After NPR broadcast its stories on Fort Carson, the assistant secretary of defense said he was concerned by NPR's findings. And yesterday, members of the mental health taskforce said they're all going to Fort Carson next month to investigate.

The co-chair of the panel said by the time they file their final report next May, members of the taskforce will have visited more than 20 military installations all around the world. And then Congress and the secretary of defense will decide how the military can do a better job helping troops in trouble.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And since Daniel first exposed many of the problems at Fort Carson, many listeners have shared their reactions and their stories. And you can read them at npr.org.

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