Healing Unseen Wounds
In the Army, some officers said they preferred to take a given job after a poor performer because it made it easier for them to stand out. I always disagreed, preferring to take over winning units, because it's much easier to build on excellence. But I understood the preference, and saw it work to a few friends' advantage when they took company command from a less-than-stellar officer.
I'm reminded of this dynamic whenever I read stories like this one involving Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- a good leader and manager who took over from a terrible one. Gates is pushing the services hard to do a better job at taking care of mental-health issues, what he calls the "unseen" wounds of war. In remarks this week at Fort Bliss, Gates exhorted Army leaders to lead by example:
...Gates announced at Fort Bliss, Texas, that uniformed and civilian Pentagon employees would no longer be forced to reveal all previous mental health treatment when applying for national security clearances.
Visiting a recovery center for PTSD, Gates called the illness one of the "unseen wounds" of war. He said there are two issues in dealing with it, the first is the task of developing care and treatment.
"The second, and in some ways perhaps equally challenging, is to remove the stigma that is associated with PTSD and to encourage soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who encounter these problems to seek help," he said.
Gates later told a gathering of nearly 900 command sergeants major and instructors at Fort Bliss that they have a special role in encouraging soldiers to seek help.
"Let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity," Gates said, shortly after he toured the base's mental health treatment facility. "I urge all of you to talk with those below you to find out where we can continue to improve."
Leadership matters in this area. The stigma associated with pursuing treatment for combat stress will never go away unless leaders push it away. Removing institutional barriers like "Question 21" on the security clearance form is important, because that effectively punished troops and their careers for seeking treatment, and gave them a powerful incentive to either lie or avoid treatment altogether.
Having senior leaders like colonels and sergeants major step forward to say, "Yes, I went to counseling after I came home," is another important step, too. And, the services (as well as the VA) must provide the resources so that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines coming home from war can find the right people to talk to when they decide to seek treatment, without having to be triaged or shunted into a month-long queue.
We cannot ask our magnificent military to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end in sight, and fail to take care of them. This is like running a machine with no oil and no maintenance; eventually, it will seize up and stop. But, of course, men are not machines. Our servicemembers are human beings, and the formula for their maintenance is far more complex than "add rest time, add mental health treatment, add R&R, then redeploy."
We have to keep our finger on the pulse of military morale and health, and take rapid action when we find problems. With Gates at the helm, I'm reasonably confident this is being done now. It's a shame we had to wait six years for a leader like him.
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