Defense Secretary Robert Gates is proving to be a refreshing break from the past. Under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon answered critics of its treatment of soldiers with denial and sarcasm. In the past few days, Gates has responded positively, and forcefully, to end the stigma on soldiers suffering from the psychological trauma of war, and he even criticized his commanders for allowing deplorable living conditions at military barracks.
Gates took an important step to encourage soldiers to get help when they need it. Until now, service members seeking a security clearance had to answer a questionnaire that required written details of their mental health treatment. Knowing that, many soldiers avoided counseling.
Under the new policy, applicants won't need to list mental health care if it is related to combat experience. That should encourage more returning soldiers to get the care they need for full recovery. And in case they missed the message, Gates reiterated it: "You can be tough and seek help for dealing with these problems."
He got tough himself after seeing a video of what he called "appalling" living conditions at the Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Images of the aging barracks showed peeling paint, mold and broken plumbing (reminiscent of the scandal at Walter Reed Medical Center). Gates ordered an immediate inspection of military barracks worldwide and put the responsibility for providing decent housing on every commander.
Problems remain in the way soldiers are equipped on the battlefield and treated when they get home. No doubt the entire military infrastructure is strained by the demands of two wars that show no signs of ending. At least now the top man at the Pentagon has a strong sense of duty toward those on the front lines.