FORT CARSON, Colo. – One of the Defense Department's biggest challenges for an Army that values mental and physical toughness is to destigmatize the concept of seeking help for mental health problems, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley said Thursday.
Kiley co-chairs a congressionally mandated task force charged with improving mental health care for service members. The task force will submit a report to the defense secretary in May after visiting 30 Army installations to hear from mental health practitioners, soldiers and their family members.
"Our Army ground forces' culture is one of toughness and pull yourself up by the bootstraps," Kiley said.
But he said the Army must continue to work to make it known that it's "not only OK but encouraged to seek mental health care."
Last month, three senators asked the Pentagon to open an investigation into allegations that Fort Carson soldiers who sought help for mental health problems after returning from Iraq received inadequate treatment or were punished.
The allegations were made by soldiers who said their superiors refused to allow them to seek treatment for mental health problems. One was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Barack Obama of Illinois, both Democrats, and Republican Kit Bond of Missouri said the soldier's allegations, reported by National Public Radio, brought up a "grave concern."
In the report, two sergeants said they often refused to allow soldiers under their command to attend mental health treatment sessions.
Kiley said he hopes soldiers can find help on base but would not stop anyone from getting help off base.
"I want soldiers to get help. I don't care where they get it," Kiley said.
Col. John Cho, commander of the hospital at Fort Carson, said 590 soldiers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at Fort Carson last year. That was up from 32 in 2002, before the war in Iraq.
Of those 590, about 120 were referred to a medical board that could evaluate whether they need to be discharged.
"It's not a career killer," Kiley said.
He said the Army is promoting treatment and care.
Fort Carson has 38 behavioral health specialists, Cho said. There is about one psychiatrist for every 2,400 soldiers, much higher than the civilian rate of one per 16,000 civilians, Cho said.
He said the number of psychiatrists and psychologists at Fort Carson has grown by 73 percent in the past two years.
Fort Carson's commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon, said changing soldiers' perceptions of seeking help for mental health issues would take time. New training focuses on teaching young Army leaders how to identify mental health problems, how to help and how to provide access to mental health services, he said.
"We're not going to tolerate bias against soldiers who seek help," Mixon said
Officers who do demonstrate bias could be disciplined or sent for further training, he said.
Kiley said soldiers who have spoken to the task force have said they are worried about hurting their careers by seeking mental health treatment.
He said 15 percent to 30 percent of the soldiers returning from Iraq report symptoms such as nightmares or sleeplessness. Soldiers who had less realistic combat training beforehand were more likely to experience the symptoms, he said.
Kiley said most soldiers are able to work through it with therapy or over time.