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Wounded vets need more, Gates says

Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that troops injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face too many bureaucratic hurdles.

Paperwork alone for them can be “frustrating, adversarial, and unnecessarily complex,’’ Gates said.

Gates spoke at a mental health summit with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. By appearing publicly together, they sought to reinforce their commitment to tackling veterans’ health issues and the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.

Earlier this year, they pledged with President Obama to create a system that would make it easier for the Pentagon and VA to exchange information so there is less of a wait for veterans to get disability benefits.

The VA is struggling with a backlogged disability claims system with hundreds of thousands of claims that need to be processed.

Among troops who have fought in the recent wars, Gates says brain injuries and mental health ailments are “widespread, entrenched, and insidious.’’ He noted that a RAND Corp. study last year estimated there could be more than 600,000 service members with traumatic brain injuries or mental health issues.

Gates said there have been positive changes such as the doubling of the budget for mental health and traumatic brain injuries to almost $1.2 billion, but other challenges remain, such as filling a shortage of therapists in and near military installations.

Shinseki said veterans are coming home with “invisible wounds’’ that are just as debilitating as physical injuries sustained on the battlefield.