Editor’s Note: Coke Beatty, executive director of Pecan Valley MHMR Region, penned the following commentary after the U.S. Department of Defense Mental Health Task Force released a report on the mental health of U.S. soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By COKE BEATTY

Special Commentary

The U.S. Department of Defense Mental Health Task Force report issued last month describing the mental health crisis among our soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as “daunting and growing” and our national government’s ability to meet such needs was described as “woefully inadequate.”

Forty percent of all soldiers, half the National Guard, a third of our Marines, and 45 percent of our Army reservists report uncontrolled anxiety, major depression, alcohol or drug addiction and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - a life-threatening condition that both the DOD and Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to recognized until convinced of the need to do so by our own Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and others in the Congress.

With hundreds of thousands of the more than 1 million U.S. troops serving at least one war-zone tour in Iraq or Afghanistan showing signs of potentially disabling mental disorders, Defense Secretary Robert Gates should move now to implement the Task Force’s 95 recommendations to make sure that the DOD is fully prepared to meet the mental as well as physical health needs of our active-duty soldiers.

The mental health needs of our returning soldiers and their families is overwhelming the capacity of the VA - a fact becoming increasingly clear to Congress and our nation’s veterans advocacy groups.

Innovative VA officials in Montana and several other states have acted to increase their capacity to provide our veterans with mental health services by contracting with their states’ community mental health centers.

Created in the 1960s as part of President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” these organizations exist in every state and have been providing mental health and related services accountable to their state legislatures and executive branches of government for over 40 years. There are 1,500 around the country and 39 here in Texas that can easily serve as an extension of the VA wherever it doesn’t have facilities or personnel.

Pecan Valley Mental Health Mental Retardation Region center is one of the 39 community mental health centers in Texas and provides direct services to more than 1,700 adults and youth across it’s six county region. PVMHMR serves Erath, Hood, Johnson, Palo Pinto, Parker, and Somervell Counties by providing mental health services such as: psychiatric evaluations and medication; counseling; case management; employment and housing services; 24/7 face to face crisis intervention; substance abuse services; post-hospitalization follow-up and care; and intensive services to persons with a mental health diagnosis released from jail or prison in an effort to reduce recidivism and/or re-offending. PVMHMR has the licensed counselors and psychiatrists available to work with our veterans returning home from war. Only bureaucratic red tape stands in the way.

Last May, community center executive directors from around Texas and the nation visited some 15 congressmen and congresswomen in Washington, D.C., in an effort to support our veterans getting the services they need and deserve.

Providing mental health services to our returning soldiers in the small towns and rural areas in which they so often live is far preferable to having them travel long distances to VA facilities. Tapping in to our network of community mental health centers - especially in rural areas - would provide the VA with a ready-made network of mental health providers and services where it needs them most, so that it might devote even greater attention to strengthening its own internal capability for the long term.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has co-sponsored Senate Bill 38, “The Veteran’s Mental Health Outreach and Access Act of 2007,” requiring the VA to partner with the nation’s community mental health centers to augment its existing resources - particularly in rural areas where VA facilities do not exist. The 2.4 million Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America are among those who have endorsed this innovative approach to meeting the needs of our returning soldiers.

Hopefully, Sen. Hutchison and Congressman Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee overseeing military construction/VA expenditures, will take every possible action to assure that legislation is enacted to bring about this much-needed partnership between the VA and our community mental health centers.

Our soldiers, their families, the VA itself and taxpayers will reap the benefit.

Coke Beatty can be reached at cbeatty@pvmhmr.org or at (254) 965-7806.