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Military mental health care must be improved, Panetta says

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a Senate panel Wednesday that he is unsatisfied with the Pentagon's current approach to combating military suicides and that the Defense Department will review its procedures for handling mental health cases.

Under questioning by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Panetta said there are "still huge gaps" in the way a mental health diagnosis is determined.

"We're doing everything we can to try to build a better system," Panetta said at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing. "But there are still huge gaps in terms of the differences in terms of how they approach these cases, and how they diagnose the cases, and how they deal with them -- and frankly, that's a whole area we have to do much better on."

The questioning came one week after the Pentagon announced that 154 active duty military suicides have occurred this year, meaning more soldiers have died of suicide this year than in combat.

The issue is of particular concern to Murray, who also leads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, because of a series of misdiagnoses that occurred at the Madigan Army Medical Center in her home state. More than 100 soldiers originally diagnosed at the center have had their diagnoses for post-traumatic stress disorder reversed. Most said they originally were told they didn't have PTSD.

Diagnosis of a condition such as PTSD is important to soldiers and veterans because of the major impact it has on the disability benefits they can receive over their lifetimes.

Some patients in Madigan have complained that their diagnoses were lessened or altered in an effort to save money and meet Army cutbacks, Murray said. Others, according to Murray, were accused of exaggerating their conditions and subsequently denied proper medical care.

"You can't imagine what it's like to talk to a soldier who was told he had PTSD," said Murray. "His family was working with him, and then when he went to the disability evaluation system, he was told he was a liar or malingerer. He was taken out of it, and he went out in the civilian world not being treated. That's a horrendous offense."