On Friday, the President Barack Obama was at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he spoke to troops and met with military families, including some who lost loved ones in Afghanistan.
As that war winds down, the president is ordering additional help for those with invisible battle scars. As a rash of suicides has shown, mental injuries can be just as deadly as a roadside bomb.
Surrounded by soldiers in camouflage fatigues, the President Obama recalled his last visit to Fort Bliss, exactly two years earlier. That was the day he announced a formal end to combat operations in Iraq.
“It was a chance for me to say on behalf of the American people to you and all who served there, ‘welcome home, and congratulations on a job well done,'” Obama said.
Troops from Fort Bliss were among the last to fight in Iraq, and they’re still fighting in Afghanistan. By next month, though, when the last of the Afghan “surge” troops withdraw, Obama says the U.S. will have only a third as many troops in those countries as it did four years ago. He promised additional services for returning troops as they cope with the mental damage left by those wars.
“Just as we give you the best equipment and technology on the battlefield, we need to give you the best support and care when you come home,” the president said.
Obama signed an executive order on Friday, directing the Veterans Administration to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals, and to expand the capacity of its crisis line so those who are in crisis can see a counselor within 24 hours.
“This is an unexpected and very positive move in the right direction,” says Paul Sullivan, the former executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “It’s not just a step. It’s a huge leap.”
Five years ago, Veterans for Common Sense sued the VA over inadequate care. Sullivan says there’s an urgent need for additional help. On average, 18 veterans and one active-duty service member take their own lives every day.
“We are now seeing more deaths among our service members and veterans than we were seeing on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says.
In addition to the extra professionals, the VA will hire 800 peer support counselors. The president has also set up a task force to recommend other ways the government can help those suffering from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
The White House says money for the additional mental health care will come from existing resources, though the president sought a 10 percent increase in overall VA funding next year.
Sullivan says the administration and Congress should be prepared for an increased mental health care bill. More than 2 million troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, often for lengthy and repeated deployments.
“We know that deployment increases the risk of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” he says. “So it’s going to be really important for veterans listening out there and their family members and friends to come forward and ask for help.”
The Defense Department has already been encouraging service-members and veterans to seek the help they need through its “Real Warriors” campaign of video testimonials and public service announcements. President Obama says that message will be amplified with a new awareness campaign that will start immediately.
“I know that you join me in saying to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform, if you’re hurting, it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help. It’s a sign of strength,” Obama said. “We’re here to help you stay strong. Army strong. That’s a commitment I’m making to you.”
The U.S. may be turning a page on a decade of war, Obama said, but its responsibility to care for the troops has only just begun.