Admiral and Mrs. Mullen speak on veterans' challenges

  • Published
  • By Lisa Daniel
  • American Forces Press Service
With Veterans Day around the corner, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and his wife, Deborah, sat down with reporters to raise visibility on issues important to military families and veterans.

The Mullens' interview Nov. 3 with the Pentagon Channel and other news broadcasters were the latest in the couple's frequent discussions about how to prevent or address some of the most challenging problems for service members, veterans and their families: mental health issues, reintegration into civilian life, unemployment and homelessness.

"This is an extraordinary group of young people fighting these wars," the chairman said. "Their lives, by and large, have changed forever. They look forward to closing this chapter of their lives and moving forward."

Today's young veterans "have enormous potential," he said, adding that they want to go to college, get jobs and raise families.

Admiral Mullen has made the post-military life of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans a focus of his tenure as chairman, conducting a "Conversations with the Country" tour to speak to government and business leaders about helping young veterans re-integrate to civilian life. He added that he recently set up a team at the Pentagon to help with the civilian re-integration effort.

"There's a sea of goodwill out there from people willing to help," Mullen said. "The challenge is in coordinating between them and us."

The chairman also encouraged new and longstanding veterans to network for better re-integration, saying there is "an instant understanding" among veterans of all wars of each others' issues.

"Everybody who has served is very proud of their service, no matter when they served," said Admiral Mullen, a Vietnam War veteran.

Mrs. Mullen, who frequently travels to speak along with her husband to service members and their families, said issues such as unemployment are important to military spouses, too. About three-fourths of military spouses either are working or seeking employment, she said, adding that they have excellent work characteristics.

"They're enormously flexible, they have great strength and they're used to change," she said. "They have extraordinary characteristics that are useful to almost any company."

The Mullens also spoke about mental health problems, suicides and homelessness among military families and veterans.

The admiral noted that the biggest change in treatment has been the increasing willingness of service members to seek help. Outreach efforts by leaders have made headway against the stigma attached to seeking mental health care in the military culture, he said, but "we're not there yet" in making the perceived stigma a thing of the past.

Military officials now deploy mental-health professionals to the war theaters, mandate "time outs" for service members who have been near explosions, and add mental-health workers as they become available, Admiral Mullen said, adding that more still needs to be done.

"Often, the symptoms, if you don't do anything about them, won't manifest for several years, then they are harder to treat," Admiral Mullen said. "I urge people to lead well in this area."

Meanwhile, suicides have become "almost epidemic," the chairman said, adding that the problem isn't well addressed across the nation at large.

"I worry that we are at the tip of the iceberg here" with service member suicides, he said, noting that because many suicides are not tied to combat deployments, the causes are difficult to discern.

The Mullens urged people to intervene if they think someone they know may be suicidal. A change in behavior, risky behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and suicides among loved ones all are risk indicators, Mrs. Mullen said.

Through publicity about suicides family members are beginning to understand "that they don't have to guess about whether someone might be suicidal, she said, urging people to call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if they need help.

Regarding homelessness, a growing problem particularly for young female veterans, Mrs. Mullen said the issue begins in the military. A significant number of homeless female veterans experienced sexual trauma in the military, she explained, which can lead to post-traumatic stress.

Also, many women don't even think of themselves as veterans after they leave the military, and communities often don't look at them that way, making them less likely to use veterans' benefits to seek the help they need, Mrs. Mullen said.

Female veterans have a higher divorce rate and lower civilian pay rate than their male counterparts, and one-fourth of female homeless veterans have children in their custody, Mrs. Mullen said.

The trajectory of such women after leaving service too often is "couch surfing, or sleeping in their cars," then into homeless shelters, she said.

"We need to be focused on this in the military," she said.