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Lewis, screening for Traumatic Brain Injury, and the availability of mental healthcare for America's veterans.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Murray asked for assurances from the nation's top military leaders that the Stryker Brigades from Fort Lewis, Washington will have everything they need during their deployments. Murray raised the question because one brigade is deploying earlier than planned and the other is remaining in Iraq longer than planned.

General Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Murray "Yes, ma'am. All of our troops - Stryker brigades, infantry brigades, regardless of how they're going over - will have the proper equipment. They will be properly trained. They will be properly manned. They will be properly equipped, before they get sent into a combat zone."

Murray also asked Defense Secretary Gates to improve tracking of service members who are involved IED incidents that could put them at risk for a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Further, Murray urged the Secretary to release data from the Defense and Veteran's Brain Injury Center, which could help improve treatment and funding for veterans with TBI. Secretary Gates promised Murray a response within one week.


Watch the exchange: rtsp:// (Requires Real Player)


An unofficial transcript of Senator Murray's questioning follows:

Witnesses: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

SENATOR MURRAY: Mr. Chairman, thank you, and thank you to our panelists. You know we've heard a lot about "support our troops" in debates around here. I just have to say that I'm one of those who voted against the war in Iraq because I felt there were too many unanswered questions. And today, watching all of the reports about what's happening, both within our VA system, and, of course, within the last few weeks here, it seems to me that who's really paid the price of this war is our troops, as they went into Iraq without the proper equipment and supplies. They've come back and been left in limbo and really deplorable conditions at Walter Reed, as Senator Mikulski talked about. They get in the VA, and they get stuck in long waiting lines to get health care benefits, and to see a doctor. I just think that is really a crime, and I think it's unbelievable to me, looking at this supplemental request and this pie chart, that we're not asking in the supplemental for the additional dollars we need to take care of these troops. It's not just a matter of putting a little more paint on the wall, though I really commend you, Secretary Gates, for what you've done in looking at this, but it is really asking the question "Are we doing everything we can whether they're still in DoD, or they've been separated into VA, and how much is this going to cost, and do we have the resources to do it?"

Traumatic Brain Injury

SENATOR MURRAY: Case in point is the issue of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Really, I think we're going to see that more and more as the signature injury of this war. Some are estimating that 10% of our returning Iraqi and Afghani veterans have suffered from traumatic brain injury. One of the really big problems is that it's an unseen wound, and it's often misdiagnosed. And in many cases unless the service member involved in an IED incident is bleeding, they're not documented as having been involved in an explosion. So, as a result of that, the actual number of Iraq and Afghani veterans with TBI could be even higher than many of the statistics indicate that we've seen so far. It's pretty clear to me that our system is not catching all the TBI patients in this war. Secretary Gates, I wanted to ask you this afternoon, would you support a policy to require the Pentagon to keep track of where and when a service member is exposed to an IED incident so we can improve screening and treatment for TBI, for traumatic brain injury?

SECRETARY GATES: I don't know about the specific implications of it, but certainly in principle I would be supportive of that.

SENATOR MURRAY: Well, I would like to know if you would follow up on that and put that in place. It's my understanding that the Defense and Veteran's Brain Injury Center today is refusing to give us any data on how many soldiers have actually suffered from brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've been saying that they don't want to disclose the results because it would put the lives of those fighting at risk, which I found pretty preposterous. This information was collected at taxpayer expense and could really help us get a handle on this problem and know how much we need and how we can best treat it. I would like to get a commitment from you today to release that critical information, so we know that we are treating those men and women, that they don't go home not knowing that they have had traumatic brain injury and that we can provide the dollars we need within the supplemental otherwise to make sure these individuals are taken care of and tracked of.

Can you tell me that you will release this information?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, again I don't know the reasons why, uh, it hasn't been released or the specifics. This is the first I've heard of it. But I certainly will look into it, and if there's no compelling reason, absolutely.

SENATOR MURRAY: When can I get an answer from you on that?

SECRETARY GATES: Certainly within a week.

SENATOR MURRAY: It's absolutely critical that we know what those numbers are. As I said, TBI is the signature issue of this war, many people are beginning to predict. And when we're sending those soldiers home without knowing that they've been injured or without us providing the resources they need I think we're not doing our job to support the troops. So I look forward to hearing from you on that, as soon as possible on that, I appreciate that.

Mental Health Care

SENATOR MURRAY: I also wanted to ask about a report that was released Sunday, titled "The Psychological Needs of U.S. Military Service Members and their Families." These are members who are still in the DOD system, not in the VA system. And it really highlighted the need for mental health services for our troops and for our families. And it was really a long list of needs.

I'm not sure if you've seen it or not, but it was very discouraging to me. There was no well-disseminated approach to providing mental health care to service members and their families. There's no coordinated approach to providing care and service members transition from military health system into the VA, and about 40% of the slots for psychologies in the Army and Navy are vacant. This is a huge issue.

Fort Lewis

SENATOR MURRAY: I was out at Fort Lewis last week and, my home state, Secretary Gates, you know it well. I got an update on some of the programs you're doing there. I've learned about a new program for spouses of deployed solders, but I would like to find out from you what the Department of Defense is doing for the whole service member, including mental health services for our troops and their families. And are we providing enough dollars for that?

SECRETARY GATES: We will get information to you.

SENATOR MURRAY: Well, okay, this is a huge issue to me because I have two Stryker brigades, and a third is forming right now. I know those troops well. I've sat down with them and their families. And under the President's proposed surge that is now occurring the 4-2 is going to deploy a couple of weeks early and the 3-2, which was deployed in June for a year, has now been extended. So these are people in my state, and I am deeply concerned that we are - both my state and across the nation - supporting our troops with real dollars, so I look forward to that. Answer to me very quickly on this. And while I'm talking about my Stryker brigades, I am very concerned that as we extend the deployment of the 3-2 and we send the 4-2 over early, do we have the adequate supplies and equipment for those troops? Are we taking - Are they going to be going into battle without what they need?

SECRETARY GATES: Let me ask General Pace to answer that question.

GENERAL PACE: Senator, first if I may, thank you for your tenacity on all the veterans' benefits, and the way that you track that. There is a lot going on right now on the mental health side, thanks to what you've already done, and there's more that can be done.

SENATOR MURRAY: Well, before you answer this question - the huge problem is that everybody falls into this big crack between DOD and VA and the transition services and we are way far behind. But I'd like your answer on the Stryker brigade.

GENERAL PACE: Yes, ma'am. All of our troops - Stryker brigades, infantry brigades, regardless of how they're going over - will have the proper equipment. They will be properly trained. They will be properly manned. They will be properly equipped, before they get sent into a combat zone.

SENATOR MURRAY: Mr. Chairman, my time is up, but I appreciate the responses of Secretary Gates. I look forward to getting your responses on those. Thank you.