Boston Globe: Obama: mandatory troop mental health screenings needed
By Philip Elliott
Sen. Barack Obama on Sunday called for improved mental health services for veterans, a day ahead of a Memorial Day that other presidential campaigns also are using to talk about helping military families.
In remarks prepared for delivery on Sunday, the Illinois Democrat proposed changes to recruitment and deployment of military mental health providers. He called for the Pentagon to recruit more professionals to help identify and treat problems. And he sought mandatory mental health screenings of all troops.
"I believe strongly that there is a sacred trust between this country and those who serve it," Obama said in prepared remarks provided to The Associated Press. "That trust begins the moment a service member signs on and lasts the duration of his or her life.
"We're falling far short in addressing the mental health care needs of these heroes, and that's inexcusable."
Obama, spending two days in the first-in-the-nation primary state with his family, has made his opposition to the war in Iraq a central tenet of his campaign. His fervent opposition has help rally anti-war voters. Critics note Obama was serving in the Illinois state Senate when the U.S. Congress authorized the war in Iraq, and Obama didn't have a vote in the matter.
According to Obama's plan, scheduled to be released during a town hall-style meeting on Sunday, the military would require face-to-face mental health screenings for all service members. By making it mandatory, Obama said the military could reduce the stigma associated with mental health screening and treatment.
The plan also would institute early mental health screenings, so future psychological injuries could be more easily diagnosed and treated.
Obama aides said he also would propose increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget. A hard dollar figure was not available, but aides say the proposed changes are expected to cost several hundred million dollars a year.
To pay for this, Obama is expected to propose a crackdown on unpaid taxes owed by defense contractors. Another source of funding could be to recover more money from third-party payers at Defense Department and VA hospitals.
Obama aides cite statistics they say show the military has failed to serve returning troops. Almost a third of the 631,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are showing symptoms of psychological or neurological injury. Meanwhile, the military has shrunk its corps of clinical psychologists by 22 percent.
And 4 out of 10 active duty clinical psychologist' slots in the Army and Navy are not filled, according to the campaign.
On Memorial Day, rival Democrat John Edwards is calling on a national day of action against the war in Iraq and in support of the troops. Edwards has said the best way to support the troops is to end the war.
On Friday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a group of veterans supporting her campaign. The event also highlighted Clinton's proposals to help military members and their families.