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Army leaders eye mental, physical health of force

Published on -7/27/2012, 3:33 PM

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FORT RILEY, Kan. (AP) -- A top Army general said Friday that the military remains focused on meeting the physical and mental health needs of soldiers and families, including providing additional behavioral health programs.

After touring Fort Riley in northeast Kansas, Gen. Lloyd Austin said leaders were focused on putting services and support structures in place to build resiliency in a force that has been at war for more than a decade. Austin and other top Army officials have spent the week touring Army posts in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas to review programs that include suicide prevention, care of wounded soldiers, prevention of sexual assault and evaluation of disabilities.

The Army's behavioral health services have come under question following incidents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Fort Hood, Texas, in which soldiers have been charged with murdering fellow soldiers and civilians. Austin said, however, that any reviews initiated in response to those incidents were outside his current survey.

Austin discussed the suicide rate among soldiers, saying reducing it would require continued efforts by Army behavioral health professionals and partnerships with community resources.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I've faced. It is an enemy because we are losing soldiers to this fight," Austin said.

Austin said the war in Afghanistan was the Army's mission but that maintaining the health of the force mentally and physically was equally important.

"This is absolutely central to the readiness of our Army, not only with respect to the current fight, but the next fight," he said.

At Fort Riley, Austin visited with post and 1st Infantry Division leaders about what is being done to meet the health care needs of 18,000 soldiers and their families assigned to the Kansas post. The division's headquarters and one brigade are deployed over the next year to Afghanistan.

The general said part of the purpose of touring the different posts was to figure out how Army headquarters can eliminate "friction points" by either by changing policies or providing additional resources.

"This about taking care of our most precious asset, that is our people," Austin said.

He said while the tour is focused on the broader health of the force, behavioral health was part of that, adding that more resources were needed. Behavioral health is part of the focus, but Austin said that there's more work to be done and getting more resources

"We need that capability and it's part of what we do. We've made some strides, but there's still some work to be done," Austin said.

Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, surgeon general of the Army, said the number of behavior health providers has increased by 83 percent since 2007. She said the Army is placing behavior health services in each brigade and integrating it in primary care services for soldiers and families.

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