FORT BLISS, Texas — In an effort to encourage troops to seek psychiatric counseling for combat stress, the U.S. military announced Thursday it will no longer consider such treatment when issuing security clearances.
Until now, some military positions have required applicants to disclose whether they had undergone psychiatric care. Under the new Pentagon order, only those who have received court-ordered care or committed a violent act must disclose their recent mental health history.
The U.S. military's handling of mental health issues has come under increasing criticism, particularly as soldiers and Marines serve multiple extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Army studies have found a growing number of troops committing suicide or suffering from mental health ailments like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
During a visit here, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called post-traumatic stress disorder an "unseen wound" of the war.
Troops have said they feared that disclosing their mental health history could risk being branded as "broken" and cost them jobs that require important security clearances.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to defuse that, saying Thursday that "nothing could be further from the truth, and it's time we got over that.'
"Infamous Question 21," as Gates described it, asked applicants whether they have consulted a mental health professional in the past seven years for issues other than martial problems or grief. If the soldier answered yes, it required spelling out details of treatment, leading to further scrutiny.
John E. Fortunato, chief of Fort Bliss' Restoration and Resilience Center, which treats soldiers returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder, called Thursday's announcement an important first step.
Fortunato, who has treated 37 soldiers since his center opened nearly a year ago, said commanders have taunted troops and told them to "soldier on" when they complained of combat stress.
Soldiers have "paid such a high price for PTSD," Fortunato said.
The cost of treating a soldier is far less than pushing him or her out of the Army, Fortunato added. He estimated it costs his center roughly $20,000 to treat someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the military would have to spend to replace the discharged soldier.
"The measure (of mental health treatment) success is retention," he said.
During his visit, Gates said the military must lift the stigma on mental health care and encourage troops to see it as equal to physical care.
"The most important thing for us now is to get the word out as far as we can to every man and woman in uniform to let them know about this change, to let them know the efforts that are under way to remove the stigma and to encourage them to seek help when they are in the theater or when they return from the theater," Gates told reporters here as he announced the change.
"The department considers it a mark of strength and maturity to seek appropriate health care, whenever required," James Clapper, the undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, and David Chu, the undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, wrote in a letter announcing the change.