Although he was addressing the audience at the Reserve Officers Association’s first National Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., the subject of Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli’s keynote speech was on the health and well-being of soldiers and their families – it is "absolutely critical to the security of our nation."
"I recognize it may seem to be an unusual topic for a forum on national security, however I believe it’s absolutely very relevant," the Army vice chief said during his Jan. 30 speech.
Soldiers and their families are under a tremendous amount of stress and strain after nearly a decade of what he calls a time of "persistent engagement."
As operations wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, more soldiers are going to be returning home – many dealing with physical or behavioral health injuries and other issues.
"I’m certain that many of you have heard me talk at length about the complexity of these injuries and how absolutely important it is that we do everything we possibly can to assist soldiers and families dealing with them now and into the future," he said.
Adding, "The fact remains these wounds are not well understood, yet they affect a significant portion of the Army’s wounded warrior population."
As of Jan. 1, 47 percent of wounded warriors are suffering from post-traumatic stress, and 16 percent from traumatic brain injuries – a "staggering" number of about 9,000 soldiers, Chiarelli said.
"Although the Army is taking a holistic approach in dealing with these injuries, the reality is the study of the brain is incredibly complex and rather immature," he said. "Most efforts aimed at diagnosing and treating these conditions are at their infancy."
Chiarelli said he gets a number of e-mails a day claiming to have a cure, but he can sit on a panel with "14 different psychiatrists and psychologists" and still get conflicting information.
"It’s going to get harder before it gets easier, but we’re making significant progress," he said.
The Army is working with researchers, doctors and medical professionals worldwide to better identify and diagnose head injuries as well as expand treatment options, he said.
Unfortunately, this stress and strain has led to suicides and suicide attempts, but, there has been a slight reduction to those numbers recently for soldiers serving on active duty, and Chiarelli credits that to the new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and a Pain Management Task Force to instruct medical providers and soldiers on best practices for pain medication.
Other programs that have been implemented include confidential alcohol-abuse treatment and education, and face-to-face post-deployment behavioral health screenings, he said.
Guard and reserve soldiers are also spending more time at demobilization stations upon return from deployment to ensure they are thoroughly checked out.
The vice chief is also looking forward to an upcoming joint Study To Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers – STARS – that he anticipates will have an "unprecedented impact" on mental health, similar to the results of Framingham Heart Study on cardiovascular disease.
"We believe these and other efforts will take us from a leveling off of active-duty suicides to a reduction in suicides, suicide attempts and high-risk behavior," Chiarelli said.