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Cantwell Calls for Extensive Mental Health Screenings for Soldiers Returning from Iraq

Senator says Fort Lewis mental health program a valuable model, calls on military to implement and support program throughout the Army

Tuesday, August 29,2006


WASHINGTON, DC – Tuesday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called on the Defense Department to follow the example set by Fort Lewis and provide comprehensive mental health screenings to more soldiers returning from Iraq and other deployments. The Fort Lewis Soldier’s Wellness Assessment Pilot Program (SWAPP) helps identify the susceptibility of returning service members to mental health ailments through questionnaires and face-to-face on-site interviews with medical professionals. Soldiers identified as at risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental health ailments are immediately scheduled for follow-up appointments. The SWAPP program, however, is not supported by the Department of Defense, funded instead by a limited grant from the U.S. Surgeon General. Cantwell is calling on the Defense Department to use the Fort Lewis SWAPP program as a model for the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard nationwide to screen and treat returning service members for mental illness.

“Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to keep our country secure,” said Cantwell. “The Defense Department needs to support immediate, comprehensive mental health screenings for returning service members. Our soldiers at Fort Lewis are fortunate enough to benefit from a local program pioneered by the base that provides access to mental health screenings and quick follow-up appointments. We need to put this model into practice across the Army, Army Reserves, and Army Guard to identify those at risk for mental health issues and get them the help they need and deserve.” In a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Cantwell highlighted the Fort Lewis program as a model to follow, and underscored the importance of providing mental health services to returning service members. More than 9,575 soldier assessments have taken place under the Fort Lewis program.

Nationwide, the Army only referred 23 percent of returning soldiers potentially at risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for additional mental health evaluations. According to the Government Accountability Office Study, the Defense Department “cannot provide reasonable assurance that [Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom] service members who need referrals for further mental health or combat/operational stress reaction evaluations receive them.” 99 percent of eligible Fort Lewis soldiers complete the SWAPP program.

[The text of Cantwell’s letter to Secretary Rumsfeld follows below]

August 29, 2006

The Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense The Pentagon, Room 3E880 Washington, DC 20301-1000

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld,

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to be briefed on the Soldier’s Wellness Assessment Pilot Program (SWAPP) employed by I Corps at Fort Lewis. I Corps and Fort Lewis, Madigan Army Hospital, and the Army Surgeon General have partnered to execute this important pilot program. SWAPP is designed as a standardized assessment process to give a complete mental health assessment following soldier deployments. SWAPP helps identify what level of risk service members are for mental health issues through standard questionnaires and face-to-face encounters with medical professionals. Notably, follow-up appointments are made on-the-spot. The on-site SWAPP assessment has helped improve access to care and the program is working to breakdown the stigma of soldiers not wanting to ask for help. In total, more than 9,575 assessments of I Corps soldiers have taken place under the Fort Lewis-SWAPP program.

Providing mental and other health assessments for soldiers returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom is the essential first step towards identifying the appropriate course of treatment. Mental health diseases, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), have affected thousands of returning soldiers. However, earlier this year the Government Accountability Office reported that the Army only referred 23 percent of soldiers for mental health evaluation that may have been ‘at risk’ for developing PTSD. The GAO also reported that the “DOD cannot provide reasonable assurance that OEF/OIF service members who need referrals for further mental health or combat/operational stress reaction evaluations receive them.”

I believe the SWAPP program at Fort Lewis provides a model for merging mental health assessments and follow-up treatment that can be applied across the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard. As I understand it, the SWAPP program at Ft. Lewis is funded through the Surgeon General’s Office, not by the Department of Defense. I believe the Department of Defense should actively support initiatives like the program at Fort Lewis. Given the importance of diagnosing and treating mental health disease in soldiers returning from deployments, I recommend that you implement a mental health evaluation and treatment program based on the Fort Lewis-SWAPP model across the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard.

Thank you for your timely response to this inquiry. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell United States Senator