In an effort to better identify service members suffering serious psychological problems as a result of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department plans to perform an additional health assessment of troops three to six months after they come home, officials said Friday.
The new policy, to begin this spring, will add a third health questionnaire to those given to troops before and immediately after deployments. Military health officials have found that soldiers leaving the war zone often minimize or cover up mental issues for fear that admitting any problem could delay their return home.
In addition, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be produced by the tension and stress of combat, often appear after a delay of weeks or months.
By checking on the emotional well-being of soldiers after they have rejoined their families and tried to resume their prewar routines, military officials hope to identify those who are having trouble with the adjustment, said Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, the Pentagon's deputy director of deployment health support.
Kilpatrick said the Defense Department was devising a two-page questionnaire to be given to troops who have been deployed 30 days or more in Iraq or Afghanistan. It will cover physical symptoms but will be designed to tease out psychological issues, he said.
"We know mental health issues are the ones we absolutely have to go after," Kilpatrick said.
In the post-deployment assessments given as soldiers prepare to return home, only 3 percent have reported serious mental health issues, Kilpatrick said. But a study by a research team led by an Army psychiatrist, Charles W. Hoge of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, found that 17 percent of soldiers questioned three to four months after returning reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, major depression or severe anxiety.
That discrepancy revealed the inadequacy of the current assessments, Kilpatrick said.
Advocates for military personnel praised the decision. "It's a good start," said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran who founded the organization Operation Truth to seek better conditions for troops in Iraq and those returning from the war.
But Rieckhoff, who served as a platoon leader with a Florida National Guard unit for 10 months, said he questioned whether the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs would be able to provide treatment for the mental health problems they will now be able to identify.
"I think emotional, mental and psychological problems will be the Agent Orange of this war," Rieckhoff said, referring to the herbicide many Vietnam veterans blame for chronic health problems.
From March 2003 to the end of November 2004, 944 soldiers were evacuated from Iraq because of severe mental health problems, an Army report said. But most soldiers who report psychological stress are treated in the field, officials say.