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Army Mental-Health Care a Priority

Caring for minds torn by war is as important as treating physical wounds, but significant challenges exist in providing that care, said Secretary of the Army John McHugh, after visiting this post Tuesday.

McHugh, who picked Fort Bliss for his first official tour since his appointment about eight weeks ago, came to express his support for families. He put his signature on an "Army Family Covenant" that originally was signed by his predecessor, Pete Geren, in 2007.

"In all candor and in all seriousness, I've seen one of the premier Army posts," McHugh told reporters after the signing ceremony. The same obstacles to providing mental-health care at Fort Bliss exist in every community, he added.

"Mental-health care is a field in which we are challenged at virtually every post," McHugh said. "Mental-health care providers are a very unique commodity, a very unique professional line, and the Army, like communities and like the other (military) services, is struggling to come up to the necessary levels of manpower."

McHugh said the hiring of a child psychologist at Fort Bliss is progress. He also spoke of resilience training that teaches soldiers how to deal with stress.

"Clearly the steps we've taken thus far, our comprehensive soldier fitness program where we're trying to put mental fitness and mental health on a par ... with physical fitness is a good step in the right direction," he said. "But we've got a ways to go."

McHugh called recent suicide data released by the Army "extraordinarily troubling."

As of Monday, the Army has identified 140 soldiers thought to have died from self-inflicted wounds so far in 2009, according to an Associated Press report. That is the same number of confirmed suicides for all of 2008.

That number represents about 24.6 suicides per 100,000 soldiers based on the current authorized strength of the Army. The national suicide rate in 2006 was 10.9 per 100,000 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the ratio does not take into account that the Army is predominantly male. The CDC estimates that four times as many males as females die by suicide.

The National Institute of Mental Health is beginning a five-year study of the problem, McHugh said. Researchers have agreed to share any identified causes or better approaches so they can be implemented as quickly as possible, he said.

And the Army already is working on some things it believes will make a difference, McHugh said.

Ensuring that soldiers get two years at home for every year deployed will make a difference, he said. He acknowledged that current deployment cycles have made that difficult.

Angela Gonzalez works as a family readiness support assistant in a Fort Bliss brigade preparing to deploy. Her job is to help family members.

"When I started, I was one of four here," Gonzalez said. "It's been almost three years since I started, and now there are 30 of us."

Neglecting families creates distractions for soldiers who must be focused when they are training or working in combat zones, Gonzalez said.

McHugh's signing of the family covenant was more than ceremonial, said Col. Christopher Cavoli, the brigade's commander.

"He is showing he is dedicated to the Army priorities of supporting the soldiers who have been under a little stress in the last few years," Cavoli said. His soldiers do not know exactly when they will leave or where they will land, but they are training for war.

"As we look at the data, we know that we haven't hit upon the answer," McHugh said of the branch's growing mental-health concerns.

"This is something we've been struggling with and we're going to continue to keep highest on our agenda in the days and months ahead."



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