WASHINGTON — Military personnel need better mental health care for themselves and their families, tougher sexual assault policies and better retirement plans to increase satisfaction with their military commitment, top Pentagon officials told lawmakers Tuesday.
The senior officers responsible for personnel told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel that rising suicide rates and mental health problems need to be addressed through better care options.
“People don’t commit suicide,” Army Lt. Gen. James C. McConville . “They die of suicide. Just like people don’t commit heart disease. They die of heart disease.”
Navy Vice Admiral William F. Moran said young men in the military are most vulnerable to mental health problems. Marine Lt. Gen. Mark A. Brilakis suggested the best way to combat mental health troubles “in a hyperpressurized environment” is to provide counseling and other services early.
Depression is even higher among military spouses, Kathy Roth-Duquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families, said. The military spouse depression rate is 12 percent and their unemployment rate is around 25 percent, according to Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey. Roth-Duquet said the government should prioritize military spouse education, employment and child care.
Joyce W. Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said the military’s health system is inadequate and too expensive, particularly for veterans. She asked the lawmakers to reject budget proposals “that threaten military family financial well-being as a way to save money for the government.”
“If I could wave a wand and fix anything, I’d make the military health system more accessible to military families,” she said.
Scott Bousum, legislative director for The Enlisted Association, noted a survey he conducted of 301 members of the military, in which nearly 70 percent of respondents said military treatment facilities are not easily accessible to them.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he is committed to changing the system.
“My goal is to make the program sustainable in terms of budget but also to make it more efficient and not repackage the system and not charge you more,” he said. “That’s exactly where we’re heading and we’re not going to do that. We’re going to change the system.”
Financial insecurity is one of the contributing factors in the rise of mental health issues, the officers testified.
They said a more stable retirement program would create greater satisfaction with the military lifestyle.
“A lot of our young soldiers live paycheck to paycheck,” McConville said.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the top Democrat on the committee-N.Y., emphasized improving sexual assault prosecution processes and decreasing retaliation rates on sexual assault allegations among not only peers, but commanders.
Joseph E. Davis, public affairs director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noted that the VA reported in October 2014 that 25 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans said they experienced sexual trauma in the military.
“Our government’s most important responsibility is to provide for the security and integrity of our nation,” Davis said. “In very close second is taking care of those who protect us.”