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Murray Presses Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey on WA State Military Installations, Mental Health Issues

Jun 11 2013

Murray discusses importance of Washington’s major military installations for DoD’s long-term strategic focus on Asia-Pacific Region

Murray continues push for completion of military-wide mental health review

Hagel: “[JBLM, Fairchild AFB, Western state installations] will remain greatly important to that strategic shift”

WATCH video of the exchange.

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray attended a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense. At the hearing, Murray questioned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the ways they are working with military installations in Western states as part of the military-wide shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region. 

Murray also asked Secretary Hagel when he expects to deliver the military-wide mental health review she asked former-Secretary Panetta to begin last year.

She stressed the urgent need to identify gaps in care and improvements that need to be made in how the Department diagnoses the invisible wounds of war.

Full text of the exchange below:

MURRAY: Thank you very much Mr. Chairman and thank you all for coming before the committee and your service as well. Secretary Hagel, I want to start with you. Last year I asked Secretary Panetta to begin a DOD-wide review of how the department diagnoses mental health conditions and he agreed to do that. The Army recently completed their review and there are some really valuable lessons we got from that, and it really underscored the need to complete the entire DOD-wide review an identify gaps in care and improvements that need to be made.

Given the number of suicides we've already seen this year, and our continued winding down from Afghanistan, I think it's really important that this review stay on track. I wanted to ask you when you expect that review to be completed.

HAGEL: I am well aware of the review and absolutely committed as Secretary Panetta was to the review and addressing it as he said very clearly when you looking at the latest numbers we have 350 suicides last year. And all of the other extenuating dynamics that play out. It is as Secretary Panetta noted one of the great internal problems that we have. As to your question when will it be due out, I don't know. We'll get back to you.

MURRAY: OK. I would like an answer. We have to really make sure we stay on track to make sure we get the diagnosis correct and respond right.

On the same line, the Army recently released some statistics saying there have been 109 potential suicides so far this year. That's just in the Army. That is really high compared to last year and continues a disturbing trend you just referred to. We are losing more service members today to suicide than we do to combat. We have passed a number of initiatives and pieces of legislation to combat this problem and to provide some additional access to mental health resources.

I wanted to ask you, Secretary, what progress has the department made in meeting the legislative requirement to create a joint, comprehensive suicide prevention program?

HAGEL: Let me ask Bob Hale, or General Dempsey because I've, kind of, got in the middle of it so the progress report I don't know. I assume we made progress. I've asked about it. I've gotten briefings on it. I know it's ongoing. I know we're doing it. I know Chief Odierno is focussed on it.

General Dempsey, anything else?

DEMPSEY: Yeah, thanks, Senator.

I don't have the dates and I can't give you a progress report from memory. We get the periodic, in-progress reviews. I'd like to take that one for the question, though, to give you the proper answer.

MURRAY: If you could get both of those back to me. And, in your testimony, you actually say that DOD is protecting funding for mental health. Can you just quickly say how those funds are going to be used? And are there programs that are going to be expanded under that?

HAGEL: I'm gonna ask the comptroller to take you down through that.

HALE: We were referring to the fact that we will not sacrifice any of the quality of health care because of sequestration. We will find ways to meet all of our key health care needs. And there may be some reductions, say, in RDT&E programs based on sequestration. But the health care for individuals won't be compromised.

MURRAY: And the mental health care side?

HALE: Yes, the same.

HAGEL: All the current programs that we have will be funded.

HALE: And in particular, Wounded Warriors will be our highest priority. I mean, we will do nothing to affect their...

MURRAY: OK, I appreciate that. I just don't want to lose track of the mental health side of this.

MURRAY: And my last question is more strategic. Over the last 10 years, military installations across our country have grown dramatically to sustain the fight, two wars. I've personally seen in my home state, Joint Base Lewis-McChord grow by 64 percent since 2006 to meet the demand.

Now, as the military shifts its focus to Asia-Pacific region, the DOD is going to -- increasingly rely on the installations in our western states. And I wanted to ask you today to discuss how DOD is taking advantage of the investments that we've now made over the last 12 years and the strategic value of our installations in the western states like Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state to facilitate your long-term strategic decisions.

HAGEL: I'll make a general comment in response to your question -- General Dempsey or the comptroller would like to add anything. Obviously, as you have stated, those assets that we have, especially in the western part of the United States, become -- they've always been important, but become more central to that -- that shift of priorities based on threats and interests in our -- in our -- in our ability to defend those interests in the Pacific -- Asia-Pacific.

So, I don't think there's any question that that's going to continue. And that means infrastructure. That means all that goes with it. Now, that doesn't mean that they're not -- there will not be any adjustments or considerations of consolidations. Until we get down into some of these things as to the implementation of the defense strategic guidance, and, in particular, the Asia-Pacific rebalancing. But my general assessment of it is, that they -- they will remain critically important to that strategic shift.

MURRAY: General Dempsey?

DEMPSEY: The only thing I'd add, Senator, is that I align myself with the secretary's general impression that our rebalancing the Pacific will certainly advantage that part of our infrastructure that tends to exist on the west coast.

But it's worth mentioning that the Army, for example, has not announced how it will go from its current strength, which is roughly 500 -- just over 550,000 down to 490,000 based on the -- last budget cut, the $487 billion. There's going to have to be some number of brigades cut. And the Army has not announced, nor shared, with the secretary yet which of those -- where -- those reductions will come from.

On top of that, then we've got to account for sequestration. And it will affect every -- I predict it will affect every installation in the continental United States and most of those overseas.

MURRAY: Thank you, very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you to all of you.