Two New Acts to Help Soldiers
> 3/18/2008 8:24:44 AM

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, more and more soldiers are coming home traumatized. Determined to treat mental causalities with as much care as physical casualties, Senators Joe Lieberman and Barbara Boxer just introduced two bills designed to fill in some of the gaps in the military's mental health coverage. The first bill seeks to increase the number of uniformed counselors and the second sets up a system for examining and fixing the causes of suicide.

The Armed Forces Mental Health Professionals Recruitment and Retention Enhancement Act of 2008 is a response to the declining ratio of men in uniform who can perform mental health services. In 2004, there was one uniformed mental health provider for every 387 soldiers; now, there is one for every 734. Whatever the reason for this decline, perhaps attributable to the perceived danger and difficulty of treatment in a protracted guerilla conflict, it is clear that something must be done to bolster the numbers if soldiers are to have reasonable access to mental health services. Specifically, soldiers want uniformed providers because they feel more comfortable receiving treatment from someone who has gone through similar experiences.

While there may be technological solutions to this personnel problem, Senators Lieberman and Boxer chose to address the matter more directly by proposing monetary incentives to bring professionals into the field. The recruitment act opens up funds for recruitment and retention bonuses by placing them under the "critical skills" designation. In addition to cash bonuses, scholarships are introduced to sweeten the pot.

The Armed Forces Suicide Prevention Act of 2008 is promising because it creates a concrete mechanism for exposing suicide's roots and recommending preventative measures based on lessons learned. The act requires every suicide to be investigated by an independent board assembled by a four-star general and managed by a one-star general. Every member of this board must be immune to pressure from those in the suicide's chain of command, freeing them to make critical judgements without fear of reprisal or worries about loyalty. Based on its findings, the board is empowered to make both immediate changes to the division involved, and to make service-wide recommendations. With military suicide rates 18.4 per 100,000 as opposed to the civilian rate of 11, these boards will have a lot of dark but necessary work to do.

These two acts should boost morale by showing soldiers that their country is aware of their vulnerabilities and working to protect them. If more uniformed mental health providers are recruited, and the causes of suicide are better illuminated and addressed, then the army will be able to better sustain its engagements without breaking down.

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