WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged troops Thursday to get psychiatric counseling for wartime mental health problems, saying it's "not going to count against them" later if they apply for national security clearances for sensitive jobs.
Gates announced a new policy under which troops and civilian defense employees will no longer have to reveal previous mental health treatment unless it was court-ordered or involved violence. He spoke after visiting a new center at Fort Bliss, Texas, designed to treat soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gates called PTSD one of the "unseen wounds" of war. To confront it, the first task is developing care and treatment, he said. "The second, and in some ways perhaps equally challenging, is to remove the stigma that is associated with PTSD."
Thousands of troops are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with war-related anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. But many hesitate to get psychiatric care because they fear that could cost them their security clearances, harm their careers and embarrass them before commanders and comrades.
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.