US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the army's senior enlisted leaders Thursday to encourage soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to seek help for "the unseen scars of war."
It was part of a broader push by Gates to break down ingrained stigma in the military that have prevented returning soldiers from getting treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Gates said soldiers will no longer have to say they have sought treatment for combat-related mental health problems in applying for security clearances, which studies have found is a common barrier to getting treatment.
"The most important thing now is to get the word out as far as we can to every man, woman in uniform to let them know about this change, to let them know the efforts underway to remove the stigma," he told reporters at this west Texas army base.
Gates made the announcement after visiting a treatment center that offers returning soldiers intensive multi-month therapy to cope with combat-related mental health problems.
He said he was impressed by the center and hoped it could be replicated at other bases.
But in a speech to 660 sergeants-major, the army's top enlisted leaders, Gates also voiced exasperation with the military's sluggish response to the needs of the rank and file.
"Current needs must not be sacrificed to future capabilities, whether the need is proper treatment of wounded warriors, or getting MRAPs (mine-resistant vehicles) and more ISR for our troops in the field -- or decent housing facilities back home," he said.
Gates said he was appalled by a recent YouTube video of barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"Soldiers should never have to live in such squalor," he said.
"It is the duty of every commander, indeed everyone responsible for our men and women in uniform to ensure our troops have decent living conditions.
"And if the local resources aren't available to make the necessary improvements, it is the leader's responsibility to alert the chain command."
Recalling a scandal last year over neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the army's premier hospital, he said, "The situation was unacceptable and so too was the response of some of the army's senior leadership."
"The secretary of the army soon found himself out of a job," he said.
On mental health issues, he said troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance, or their careers.
"All of you have a special role in encouraging troops to seek help for the unseen scars of war -- to let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity," he told the sergeants-major.
"As I have said before, there is no higher priority for this department, after the war, than caring for our wounded soldiers," he said.
A study last month by the RAND Corporation estimated that 300,000 veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan currently suffer from PTSD or major depression.
That study also found that only about half of those who met diagnostic criteria for PTSD or major depression had sought help or treatment in the past year.
Survey results this week by the American Psychiatric Association found that three in five military members think that seeking help for mental health problems would have at least some negative impact on their careers.
About half thought that others would think less of them if they sought help for mental health concerns.
The Restoration and Resilience Center that Gates visited at Fort Bliss is the only one of its kind in the army.
Since it opened in July 2007, it has treated 37 soldiers with PTSD with the goal of returning them to duty. So far, 12 have graduated, and the center is following their progress.
Dr. John Fortunato, the center's chief, said Gates' push was "a good first step" but getting the military to be more accepting of soldiers with psychological wounds "is a slow go."
"It is an organization that is about strength and endurance," he said. "And that's a cultural prejudice. Like any prejudice, it's hard to die."