WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senior military officers could be talking about their emotional struggles on YouTube and MySpace this year, in a Pentagon campaign to urge troops into counseling for wartime mental problems.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that getting therapy "is not going to count against" troops when they apply for national security clearances.
A new policy on security clearances and the idea of a planned national awareness campaign on mental illness are efforts by a Defense Department struggling to care for the many thousands of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional wounds.
Part of the problem is changing a military culture that equates such problems with weakness and so stigmatizes those getting treatment.
"It's time for leaders of all stripes to step forward and lead by example, when it comes to mental health issues," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told a Pentagon press conference.
"You can't expect a private or a specialist to be willing to seek counseling when his or her captain or colonel or general won't do it," he said.
"I've talked with a number of (senior leaders) already and we already have folks who are standing up and ready to come forward and tell their story," said Col. Lorree Sutton, an Army psychiatrist who heads a new center for psychological health and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"We can talk about how important it is," she said. "Ultimately, troops and families - they want to see leaders walking that talk."
The two spoke at a Pentagon press conference after Gates announced at Fort Bliss, Texas, that uniformed and civilian Pentagon employees would no longer be forced to reveal all previous mental health treatment when applying for national security clearances.
Visiting a recovery center for PTSD, Gates called the illness one of the "unseen wounds" of war. He said there are two issues in dealing with it, the first is the task of developing care and treatment.
"The second, and in some ways perhaps equally challenging, is to remove the stigma that is associated with PTSD and to encourage soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who encounter these problems to seek help," he said.
Gates later told a gathering of nearly 900 command sergeants major and instructors at Fort Bliss that they have a special role in encouraging soldiers to seek help.
"Let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity," Gates said, shortly after he toured the base's mental health treatment facility. "I urge all of you to talk with those below you to find out where we can continue to improve."
Up to 20 percent of the more than 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental problems.
Yet officials say roughly half don't get help because they fear it will keep them from getting security clearances, will stifle their careers, or embarrass them before their commanders and buddies.
"It's way past time, some seven years into this war, that we recognize the toll it's taking inside our minds, as well as outside our bodies, and to deal with that reality in a measured, mature and thoughtful manner," Mullen said.
Sutton said a national campaign to discuss treatment, seek solutions, develop support networks and so on later is still in the planning stages.
Asked how many leaders might come forward and what forum they might use, she said a campaign could use print and broadcast media. "We also want to use the modalities that our warriors, our troops and our families use, so we're planning to harness the power of YouTube, MySpace, Second Life, podcasting, all manner of ways, because it's so important to get this message out."
Officials also are considering setting up a Web site "linking up mentors, families perhaps that may be living across the country from each other but who have similar interest, maybe similar concerns, similar backgrounds who would like to support each other," Sutton said.
Mullen said that for too long, troops have believed that seeking mental health assistance would hurt their careers.
"Nothing could be further from the truth, and it's time we got over that," Mullen said.
A question on the government application for security clearances - what Gates called "the infamous Question 21" - has long asked federal employees whether they have consulted a mental health professional in the past seven years. If so, they are asked to list the names, addresses and dates they saw the doctor or therapist, unless it was for marriage or grief counseling and not related to violent behavior.
The new question allows them to answer "No" if the counseling was for any of the following reasons and was not court-ordered:
- Strictly marital, family or grief counseling not related to their own violent behavior;
- Strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment.
Gates said a letter will be attached to applications explaining the department's position on therapy.
"Seeking professional care for these mental health issues should not be perceived to jeopardize an individual's security clearance," says the letter from James Clapper and David Chu, undersecretaries of defense for intelligence and personnel respectively.
Rather, they said, "failure to seek care actually increases the likelihood that psychological distress could escalate to a more serious mental condition, which could preclude an individual from performing sensitive duties."
The Pentagon says the perception of stigma for security applicants is far worse than the reality.
The most recently released data show less 1 percent of some 800,000 people investigated for clearances in 2006 were rejected on the sole issue of their mental health profiles.
Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, head of Army intelligence, said it was his department that originally recommended eliminating the old question after finding it affected so few people and yet "the perception was so damning" among troops in the field.
More important to investigators considering the clearances is "your behavior, your financial situation ... the observations of your friends and neighbors and supervisors," he said in an interview.