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Army chief talks about soldiers' physical, mental health

Posted March 16, 2009 4:14 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2009 6:38 p.m. EDT

— Army Secretary Pete Geren on Monday spoke about the physical and mental health issues facing soldiers who are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Geren visited wounded soldiers at Fort Bragg while there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Knights, the Army's elite parachute team.

"My message is to thank them for their service, but I'm really here to listen to them and learn from them," Geren said.

Since 2007, the Army has established 35 Warrior Transition Units, including one at Fort Bragg, to help soldiers navigate the medical system and monitor their progress and treatment.

Last week, the Associated Press reported about complaints from soldiers in WTUs that they're being punished for their injuries and being held to the same standards as able-bodied soldiers.

Geren, who took the Army's top civilian post after the scandal over conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said that he is unaware of those complaints. The Army is constantly working improving WTUs, he said.

"They're works in progress. We continue to adapt them to make them work better for the soldiers – and not just the soldiers but their families," Geren said.

Geren also addressed the spike in suicides by soldiers. In 2008, the Army recorded 128 suicides, the highest number in 30 years.

"It's the highest priority for us in the Army to try to address the problem," Geren said, adding that the Army is working with the National Institute of Mental Health.

"Getting help for mental issues – it's not a sign of weakness," he said. "We've got to get rid of that stigma. We have got to get soldiers willing to come forward."

Geren said that soldiers have and their families have experienced "tremendous stress" over routine deployments and that Fort Bragg has borne the brunt of the demands.

"We can't expect anything but an era of persistent conflict. And our nation will continue to look to the best, and here at Fort Bragg, we have the nation's best," Geren said.