Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Military plans treatment for
troops returning from war

Medical professionals will try
to spot signs of post-combat stress

A new U.S. military policy to help soldiers returning from Middle East combat zones get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorders was described here yesterday by a top Department of Defense official.

National Guard and Reserve members as well as the regular military forces will be required to have a "face-to-face interaction with a medical professional" under the program, said Dr. William Winkenwerder.

The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs met with Pacific Command officials and was to leave today for Indonesia to visit the Navy hospital ship Mercy, which is providing medical aid to victims of the Dec. 26 tsunamis.

He said Army research found that one out of every six soldiers returns with problems such as "bad dreams, not sleeping well, change in diet, easily angered, depressed, difficulty in relationships, just feeling like a fish out of water."

Returning combatants will be tracked for months in the program to be launched in April throughout the U.S. armed forces. It expands the current health assessments that are done before deployment and just after military members return.

"We found at time of return, 3 to 4 percent of service members indicated they had a mental health concern or problem," said Winkenwerder.

"We learned from some studies conducted by the Army that, if you confidentially ask people in two or three months how they are doing or if they are having stress, depression, adjustment problems, the number rose as high as 17 percent."

The new policy arose from a survey of Europe-based soldiers in the 1st Armored Division returning from Iraq and another study at the Army's Walter Reed Research Institute, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, he said.

Winkenwerder said all military members will be required to complete a questionnaire about their health and to have the assessment appointment from two to five months after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said existing military hospitals and clinics are sufficient to handle the expanded mental health initiative, and no extra funding was provided in the budget. Members of the National Guard and Reserves will have six months of military health coverage after their demobilization under a law passed last year, he said. They are eligible for two years of Veterans Administration benefits if they serve in a combat theater.

"It's fair to say that just about everybody feels some level of adjustment" when they return from deployment, said Winkenwerder, an internist who worked in the public health field before appointment to the Department of Defense three years ago. "We certainly want to prevent people from turning to drugs or alcohol or other things to try and suppress these feelings."

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs

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