This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
It’s welcome news that the Department of Defense is expanding its review of post-traumatic stress syndrome diagnoses. That review will now date back to the 2002 start of the war in Afghanistan and include all branches of the military, not just the Army.
If recent reversals of many diagnoses made at Madigan Army Medical Center are any indications, too many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wrongly told that they do not suffer from the disorder, affecting their ability to get treatment and receive disability benefits.
According to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray – who has been a pit bull on the subject of veterans’ mental health care – many soldiers whose diagnoses have been reversed said they were told “they were exaggerating their symptoms, lying and accused of shirking their duties.”
In any large group of people, there will always be some bad eggs trying to game the system. Those who don’t deserve disability benefits shouldn’t get them. But the high suicide rate among those serving in the military shows that mental health issues are a big problem for the military.
Suicide is now killing more active-duty service members than combat. And about 14 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought mental health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In a Senate hearing last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he wasn’t satisfied with how the military has handled the problem of PTSD diagnoses.
“Part of it is bureaucratic,” he said. “The fact is that sometimes just the bureaucratic nature of a large department prevents it from being agile enough to respond and do what needs to be done.”
Panetta said he and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki have been meeting on the subject and trying to implement improvements. But Murray rightly is concerned that a military bogged down in bureaucracy won’t be able to both handle a 10-year review and address current mental health concerns at the same time.
With tightening military budgets, it’s unclear how the Pentagon plans to solve the problems of the past while keeping up with current and future PTSD cases. The Department of Defense needs to be more forthcoming with its plans for cutting through the bureaucracy and funding treatment for mental health problems that will continue much longer than the wars that led to them.