By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – With growing recognition of the toll post-traumatic stress disorder has taken on U.S. forces, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Defense Department may consider awarding Purple Heart medals to combat veterans afflicted with it.
"It's an interesting idea," Gates said when asked about the concept during a press conference Friday at Red River Army Depot. "I think it is clearly something that needs to be looked at."
Gates' comment followed his visit a
day earlier to Fort Bliss where he toured the post's Recovery and Resilience Center, which is using a holistic approach to treating troops with post-traumatic stress disorder.
John E. Fortunato, who conceived of and runs the center, told reporters that awarding the Purple Heart to PTSD sufferers would go a long way toward chipping away at prejudices surrounding the disease. Because PTSD affects structures in the brain, it's a physical disorder, "no different from shrapnel," Fortunato said. "This is an injury."
The Army classifies PTSD as an illness, not an injury, so troops with PTSD don't qualify for the Purple Heart. That distinction is limited to troops killed or wounded in a conflict.
According to The American War Library's Web site, no U.S. military medal has ever been established by the Department of Defense or Congress for post-service, psychological-based symptomatic disorders and previous petitions by veterans or veterans groups to make this condition eligible for a new or existing medal were not approved.
"I would love to see that changed, because these guys have paid at least as high a price, some of them, as anybody with a traumatic brain injury, as anybody with a shrapnel wound," Fortunato said.
Not recognizing those with PTSD with a Purple Heart "says that this is the wound that isn't worthy," Fortunato said. "And it is."
Fortunato said he'd also like to see a regulation prohibiting harassment of troops with PTSD, similar to regulations banning racial or sexual harassment. "Until there are sanctions that make a superior pay a price for harassing a soldier with mental health problems, I don't know that it will change that much."
Soldiers still get laughed at for seeking mental-health services or told that it will ruin their careers, he said. Some in the force view those with PTSD as weak, believing that if those with the disease "just sucked it up and soldiered on, (they would) could get over this," Fortunato said.
"The Army is making a lot of strides toward changing that, but it's a slow go, because it has to happen at the grassroots level," he said. "Like any other prejudice, it's hard to die."
During his visit to Fort Bliss, Gates announced a new policy in which combat veterans no longer have to acknowledge on their federal security clearance forms that they have received mental health care for combat stress. Gates said he hoped the policy would eliminate troops' concerns that seeking mental health care can cause them to be denied a security clearance and threaten their careers. He also expressed hope it would take the stigma away from seeking treatment.
Gates called on senior noncommissioned officers to encourage their soldiers who need it to get care, and to let them know that doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness.
"All of you have a special role in encouraging troops to seek help for the unseen scars of war – to let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity," Gates told soldiers attending the Army Sergeants Major Academy on Thursday. "I urge you all to talk with those below you to find out where we can continue to improve.
"Those who have sacrificed for our nation deserve the best care they can get. As I have said before, there is no higher priority for the Department of Defense, after the war itself, than caring for our wounded warriors."