Mullen Outlines Progress, Shortfalls in Veteran Support

WASHINGTON — The chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out­lined the Defense Department’s efforts to strength­en fam­i­lies, bol­ster edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties and ensure a good future for its vet­er­ans — and he asked for help.
Speak­ing before the World Con­gress on Dis­abil­i­ties in Dal­las, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen recount­ed his expe­ri­ences dur­ing his ‘Con­ver­sa­tion with the Coun­try’ tour to cities through­out Amer­i­ca, where he seeks local answers to meet the chal­lenges of health care, edu­ca­tion and employ­ment for vet­er­ans return­ing from America’s wars.

“I talk to com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers about vet­er­ans who are return­ing home from these wars, who offer such great poten­tial, and who are mem­bers of the best mil­i­tary the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca has ever had,” he said. 

Those vet­er­ans have sac­ri­ficed tremen­dous­ly, and are on aver­age 20 to 25 years old, Mullen said, assert­ing “they are wired to serve.” If they can make a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion from the mil­i­tary to civil­ian life, he added, they will be an asset to the nation and the world for decades to come. The cur­rent, robust GI Bill, improved mil­i­tary med­ical care and fam­i­ly sup­port pro­grams are work­ing to help vet­er­ans, he said, but the chal­lenges are not short-term. 

The old sys­tem of send­ing a for­mer ser­vice­mem­ber home and say­ing, “thank you very much, have a nice life” is not an accept­able mod­el, the chair­man said. “We have got to stay in touch with them. We’ve got to be respon­si­ble enough to know that their needs are being met, and the only way we can scale this is through com­mu­ni­ties through­out the coun­try,” he said. “I’ve got 40,000 phys­i­cal­ly wound­ed, I’ve got hun­dreds of thou­sands with [post-trau­mat­ic stress] … and that mod­el is the same mod­el that gen­er­at­ed a home­less lev­el, post-Viet­nam … that we’re still deal­ing with 50, 60 years later.” 

The Defense and Vet­er­ans Affairs depart­ments and city and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers must work togeth­er to fig­ure out the best sys­tem to meet vet­er­an chal­lenges, Mullen said. Local lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ties are in the best posi­tion to pro­vide the sus­tained approach that’s required, he said, but “you may live in a com­mu­ni­ty and not have a clue who’s there, as they return.” 

Across the coun­try there is tremen­dous sup­port for vet­er­ans, Mullen said, and he works to focus that sup­port and con­nect it to the vet­er­ans who can ben­e­fit from it. America’s cur­rent wars are dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous con­flicts, and vet­er­ans today often have dif­fer­ent chal­lenges than their coun­ter­parts in the past faced, he said. “We live in an extra­or­di­nary time of change,” he said. “The wounds of these wars are dif­fer­ent, and they have caused [the mil­i­tary] in many cas­es to look at things dif­fer­ent­ly. We’ve changed – in med­i­cine, we’ve changed how we han­dle peo­ple on the bat­tle­field. Now, if you are brought to the right med­ical facil­i­ty with­in an hour, almost … with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion about the kind of wound, you have a 95 per­cent chance to survive.” 

Mil­i­tary med­i­cine also has made great strides in treat­ing ser­vice­mem­bers with ampu­ta­tions, Mullen not­ed. “We lead the world now in that,” he said. “We’ve linked up with orga­ni­za­tions all over the coun­try … to devel­op the best pros­thet­ics in the world. And we keep advanc­ing.” The mil­i­tary med­ical sys­tem also has got­ten bet­ter at help­ing ser­vice­mem­bers reha­bil­i­tate and in treat­ing brain injuries, the chair­man said. “What we are strug­gling with is the diag­no­sis and treat­ment of — as rapid­ly as pos­si­ble — the mild to mod­er­ate brain injuries,” he said. “It turns out they are unique in one sense because of the kinds of blasts that cause them.” 

The chair­man said two or three years ago he and his wife, Deb­o­rah, had lunch with a sol­dier who had lost hissight in one eye. “I asked him what hap­pened, and he said ‘The thir­ti­eth one got me,’ ” Mullen said. “Thir­ty blasts, at any lev­el, is far too many,” the chair­man said. “We’ve since shift­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly on the bat­tle­field, to pull peo­ple out of the fight in the case of any blast, and to eval­u­ate them immediately.” 

The chair­man said the mil­i­tary has learned that imme­di­ate treat­ment of brain injuries can sig­nif­i­cant­ly lessen their long-term con­se­quences. “We’re mov­ing now, lit­er­al­ly in our tenth year [of war], for bet­ter treat­ment of those kinds of injuries on the bat­tle­field, to then tran­si­tion to long-term treat­ment here,” he said. 

The chair­man said the injury he wor­ries about most is post-trau­mat­ic stress, and its spread through­out the ser­vices and with­in the fam­i­lies of those who serve. “PTS isn’t new, and there are world experts in this room. But PTS is also part of a huge chal­lenge that we have, which is the stig­ma … they want to get back in the fight,” he said. “And get­ting (ser­vice­mem­bers) to raise their hand and ask for help is tru­ly difficult.” 

When his wife vis­its mil­i­tary spous­es, he said, she often finds peo­ple who rec­og­nize the symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress in their hus­band or wife, but are afraid to ask for help because of the pos­si­ble effect on the servicemember’s career. 

“We’re start­ing to break through on that … but in addi­tion to mem­bers who have PTS, there are spous­es who have PTS-like symp­toms,” he said. With major com­bat units fac­ing their fourth or fifth deploy­ment in 10 years, mil­i­tary chil­dren also are dis­play­ing symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress, the chair­man said. “You can imag­ine the load our fam­i­lies are bear­ing while the mem­bers are deployed,” he said. “We’ve nev­er been more blessed by fam­i­ly sup­port, in my 40-plus years of wear­ing the uni­form, than we have in these wars.” 

Fam­i­ly readi­ness is direct­ly tied to mil­i­tary readi­ness and “our abil­i­ty to car­ry out the mis­sion,” he said. “But we also see spous­es talk about their own chal­lenges with PTS, and their children’s chal­lenges,” Mullen said. “If I am an 11- or 12-year-old right now, I have only known war, and I have seen my father or my moth­er less than half my life.” 

Mil­i­tary fam­i­ly mem­bers who are now col­lege-aged, he said, spent their teenage years not get­ting to know a par­ent — usu­al­ly a father — in uni­form. “Those are long-term chal­lenges,” the chair­man said. Things we’ll be deal­ing with for a long time.” 

The mil­i­tary is start­ing to learn how to help ser­vice­mem­bers and mil­i­tary fam­i­lies build resilience, he said. “Ini­tial­ly, it was deploy. Then it was get ready for the return from deploy­ment, how do we pre­pare for that. Then it was get ready for the next deploy­ment,” Mul­len­said. “And what we’ve found out is we have to start build­ing resilience in every sin­gle one of us, from the first day of basic train­ing.” The mil­i­tary is still work­ing to devel­op a pre­ven­tive rather than reac­tive approach to stress issues, he said, not­ing, “We’re bet­ter than we were, but we’ve got a lot of resilience that we’ve got to build in.” 

One approach Mullen said he thinks the Defense Depart­ment will adopt is reduc­ing the num­ber of moves mil­i­tary fam­i­lies make. “What has brought to my atten­tion more than once by the woman that I live with, who has been a Navy wife for 42 years, is the crit­i­cal­i­ty of the readi­ness of our fam­i­lies to han­dle this pace,” he said. “We’re in a time when we’re just not going to be able to move peo­ple like we did … it’s edu­ca­tion, it’s kids in school, it’s spouse careers. We’re going to have to be based, I think, in places longer than we have in the past.” 

The mil­i­tary also is work­ing with schools, teach­ers, and state and local admin­is­tra­tions to ensure schools serv­ing mil­i­tary fam­i­ly mem­bers with par­ents in a com­bat zone can help them cope with the chal­lenges of a mil­i­tary lifestyle, the chair­man said. 

“Par­tic­u­lar­ly guards­men and women, and [reservists], who live in every sin­gle cor­ner of this coun­try,” he said. “They live in rur­al areas where med­ical care is not that great. They live in small com­mu­ni­ties where schools are small – and my abil­i­ty to reach out to those teach­ers and touch them, and edu­cate them about what a young boy or girl is going through, is still a challenge.” 

All of that, he said, is “part of mak­ing this war vis­i­ble, hav­ing lead­ers under­stand this, and then try to fig­ure out local solu­tions.” The oth­er chal­lenge embed­ded in today’s vet­er­an issues is sui­cide, he said. 

“This is some­thing we’re almost des­per­ate on,” the chair­man said. “It turns out the coun­try does­n’t know a lot about sui­cide: 32,000 sui­cides a year, and it is as if it is taboo. We just put it in a clos­et, nobody talks about it, and then we move on. That is not acceptable.” 

The mil­i­tary is at record sui­cide lev­els, he said. 

“We don’t know exact­ly why, though I think numer­ous com­bat deploy­ments have a lot to do with it, although a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of those that are killing them­selves have not deployed,” Mullen said. 

The mil­i­tary has put a lot of effort into pre­vent­ing sui­cide, he said, but it needs help. 

Mullen told his audi­ence that ensur­ing vet­er­ans have the best pos­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties for their future lives is a debt the entire nation owes its men and women in uniform. 

He read aloud a let­ter that one wound­ed lieu­tenant, a Navy Seal, — mar­ried and the father of three — post­ed on his hos­pi­tal room door while he was recov­er­ing from sev­en bul­let wounds to the face that he received in Iraq in 2007. 

“If you’re com­ing into this room with sor­row, or to feel sor­ry for my wounds, go else­where. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for peo­ple I love, sup­port­ing the free­dom of a coun­try I deeply love. 

“I’m incred­i­bly tough and will make a full recov­ery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost phys­i­cal­ly my body has the abil­i­ty to recov­er. Then I will push that about 20 per­cent fur­ther through sheer men­tal tenac­i­ty. This room you are about to enter is a room full of fun, opti­mism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not pre­pared for that, go else­where,” the chair­man read. 

“He is per­fect­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our young men and women today, and he rep­re­sents the poten­tial that’s there, as so many tran­si­tion from ser­vice in the mil­i­tary to their future lives,” Mullen said. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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