Back in 2007, Congress instructed the Pentagon to investigate innovative ways of helping soldiers who were coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The result was the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE), which, four years later, seems to be spending tens of millions of dollars without tracking where the money is going or setting priorities. According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the military is having a lot of troubling dealing with nebulous but devastating disorders like PTSD. This is despite the fact that President Obama declared PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to be the “signature injuries of today’s wars.”
“We have an organization that exists, but we have considerable concern about what it is that it’s actually accomplishing,” Denise Fantone, a GAO director who supervised research on one of the reports, told ProPublica. “I can’t say with any certainty that I know what DCOE does, and I think that’s a concern.”
Shockingly, the DCoE has never turned in a budget that conformed to federal standards. It has also been plagued by hiring difficulties and a lack of clarity in its goals. According to ProPublica, the DCoE was “created on the fly and tasked to deal with some of the most complicated mental-health issues in the military’s history. In addition, it has faced stiff bureaucratic resistance, with some Pentagon officials questioning its usefulness.”
Many cases of PTSD go undiagnosed and untreated, so it’s impossible to know how many soldiers are slipping through the cracks, but estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The DCoE was supposed to help the rising numbers of soldiers with brain injuries and PTSD, but they seem to be having intense difficulties dealing with these “hidden wounds of war.” Both the Pentagon and the DCoE admitted that they need to fix many of the elements highlighted in the GAO report.
“Currently, the DCoE is conducting a comprehensive review to prioritize initiatives, including those congressionally mandated, to identify and resolve strategic issues, resource allocation, priorities, and approve execution plans,” said Cynthia O. Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. “There is still substantial work to be done. We must ensure we are properly allocating resources and establishing priorities to take care of our service members.”
The question is, where will they begin? More than half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at VA hospitals have been diagnosed with some sort of mental health problem, and there’s a critical shortage of army neurologists overseas, which is a problem because soldiers often suffer concussions caused by roadside bombs. Clearly, both the DCoE and the Pentagon have their work cut out for them. It seems like the first step, though, should be some decent infrastructure for the DCoE.
Photo from U.S. Army via flickr.