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Returning Iraq war veterans to face psychological testing

WASHINGTON -- Grappling with a growing mental health crisis among troops who have fought in Iraq, the Pentagon is planning to require service members, for the first time, to undergo psychological assessments months after they return home.

The policy is designed to tackle the burgeoning incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among troops who have seen combat in the longest and deadliest war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam.

While troops already are required to fill out a three-page health questionnaire within days of leaving Iraq -- and to see a doctor, nurse, or nurse practitioner to answer questions -- that assessment includes only a few questions about mental health. The assessment is taken before troops have had time to readjust to home life, and, for many, before signs of mental anguish appear.

The new assessments will focus on the mental health and readjustment issues that troops face after they have had time to reenter their home lives, said Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs.

Among soldiers who have returned from Iraq, 3 percent have indicated on the postdeployment questionnaires that they have a mental health problem or concern, Winkenwerder said. But among soldiers questioned three to four months afterward, that number jumped to 13 percent to 17 percent, he said.

Mental health specialists with the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs have said in recent months that there is reason to believe the war's ultimate psychological fallout will be much worse.

Under the Pentagon plan, the mental health assessments would be administered beginning in April to all returning troops, including members of the National Guard and Reserves. But before then, a task force of health professionals from throughout the military will develop the program.

Winkenwerder said no funds had been allocated to the new program, and said it was unclear how much it would cost.

Mental health professionals who deal with veterans have said that early identification of symptoms and intervention could help prevent the kind of massive psychological devastation seen in veterans of the Vietnam War.

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