Mullens Speak Out on Veterans’ Challenges

WASHINGTON — With Vet­er­ans Day around the cor­ner, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and his wife, Deb­o­rah, sat down with reporters this week to raise vis­i­bil­i­ty on issues impor­tant to mil­i­tary fam­i­lies and vet­er­ans.

The Mul­lens’ inter­views yes­ter­day with the Pen­ta­gon Chan­nel and oth­er news broad­cast­ers were the lat­est in the couple’s fre­quent dis­cus­sions about how to pre­vent or fix some of the most chal­leng­ing prob­lems of ser­vice­mem­bers, vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies: men­tal health issues, rein­te­gra­tion into civil­ian life, unem­ploy­ment and homelessness. 

“This is an extra­or­di­nary group of young peo­ple fight­ing these wars,” the chair­man said. “Their lives, by and large, have changed for­ev­er. They look for­ward to clos­ing this chap­ter of their lives and mov­ing forward.” 

Today’s young vet­er­ans “have enor­mous poten­tial,” he said, adding that they want to go to col­lege, get jobs and raise families. 

Mullen has made the post-mil­i­tary life of Iraq and Afghanistan war vet­er­ans a focus of his tenure as chair­man, con­duct­ing a “Con­ver­sa­tions With the Coun­try” tour to speak to gov­ern­ment and busi­ness lead­ers in civil­ian com­mu­ni­ties about help­ing young vet­er­ans rein­te­grate to civil­ian life. He added that he recent­ly set up a team at the Pen­ta­gon to also help with the civil­ian rein­te­gra­tion effort. 

“There’s a sea of good­will out there from peo­ple will­ing to help,” Mullen said. “The chal­lenge is in coor­di­nat­ing between them and us.” 

The chair­man also encour­aged new and long­stand­ing vet­er­ans to net­work for bet­ter rein­te­gra­tion, say­ing there is “an instant under­stand­ing” among vet­er­ans of all wars of each oth­ers’ issues. “Every­body who has served is very proud of their ser­vice, no mat­ter when they served,” said Mullen, a Viet­nam War veteran. 

Mrs. Mullen, who fre­quent­ly trav­els to speak with her hus­band and to ser­vice­mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, said issues such as unem­ploy­ment are impor­tant to mil­i­tary spous­es, too. 

About three-fourths of mil­i­tary spous­es either are work­ing or seek­ing employ­ment, she said, adding that they have excel­lent work characteristics. 

“They’re enor­mous­ly flex­i­ble, they have great strength, and they’re used to change,” she said. “They have extra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter­is­tics that are use­ful to almost any company.” 

The Mul­lens also spoke about men­tal health prob­lems, sui­cides and home­less­ness among mil­i­tary fam­i­lies and veterans. 

The admi­ral not­ed that the biggest change in treat­ment has been the increas­ing will­ing­ness of ser­vice­mem­bers to seek help. Out­reach efforts by lead­ers have made head­way against the stig­ma attached to seek­ing men­tal health care in the mil­i­tary cul­ture, he said, but “we’re not there yet” in mak­ing the per­ceived stig­ma a thing of the past. 

The mil­i­tary now deploys men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als to the war the­aters, man­dates “time outs” for ser­vice­mem­bers who have been near explo­sions, and keeps adding men­tal health work­ers as they become avail­able, Mullen said, adding that more still needs to be done. 

“Often, the symp­toms, if you don’t do any­thing about them, won’t man­i­fest for sev­er­al years, then they are hard­er to treat,” Mullen said. “I urge peo­ple to lead well in this area.” Mean­while, sui­cides have become “almost epi­dem­ic,” the chair­man said, adding that the prob­lem isn’t well addressed across the nation at large. 

“I wor­ry that we are at the tip of the ice­berg here” with ser­vice­mem­ber sui­cides, he said, not­ing that because many sui­cides are not tied to com­bat deploy­ments, the caus­es are dif­fi­cult to discern. 

The Mul­lens urged peo­ple to inter­vene if they think some­one they know may be sui­ci­dal. A change in behav­ior, risky behav­ior, drug and alco­hol abuse and sui­cides among loved ones all are risk indi­ca­tors, Mrs. Mullen said. Through pub­lic­i­ty about sui­cides, she said, fam­i­ly mem­bers are begin­ning to under­stand “that they don’t have to guess about whether some­one might be sui­ci­dal.” She urged peo­ple to call 1–800-273-TALK (8255) if they need help. 

Regard­ing home­less­ness, a grow­ing prob­lem par­tic­u­lar­ly for young female vet­er­ans, Mrs. Mullen said the issue begins in the mil­i­tary. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of home­less female vet­er­ans expe­ri­enced sex­u­al trau­ma in the mil­i­tary, she explained, which can lead to post-trau­mat­ic stress. 

Also, Mrs. Mullen said, many women don’t even think of them­selves as vet­er­ans after they leave the mil­i­tary, and com­mu­ni­ties often don’t look at them that way, mak­ing them less like­ly to use vet­er­ans ben­e­fits to seek the help they need. 

Female vet­er­ans have a high­er divorce rate and low­er civil­ian pay rate than their male coun­ter­parts, and one-fourth of female home­less vet­er­ans have chil­dren in their cus­tody, Mrs. Mullen said. The tra­jec­to­ry of such women after leav­ing ser­vice too often is “couch surf­ing, or sleep­ing in their cars,” then into home­less shel­ters, she said. 

“We need to be focused on this in the mil­i­tary,” she said. 

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

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