Mental health screening for soldiers picks up steam

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill calling for mental health screening for recruits before they can join the military, which it says could help prevent future shootings on military bases.

"While the military performs comprehensive physical and medical evaluations, no similar examination for mental health exists," said Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), a co-sponsor of the bill.

"The Medical Evaluation Parity for Service Members Act will institute a preliminary mental health assessment at the time recruits are first joining the military," he said.

According to his statement, nearly one in five Army soldiers enters the service with a psychiatric disorder, and nearly half of all soldiers who tried suicide first attempted it before enlisting.

"This small but consequential improvement to recruitment evaluations will help address a recognized knowledge gap within the military and ensure our soldiers are both physically and mentally fit to serve," Thompson said.

Thompson and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) introduced the legislation on March 27, before the shooting, but it picked up more support after Army Spc. Ivan Lopez, 34, went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last Tuesday, killing three soldiers and wounding 16.

On Wednesday, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

"Too many of our men and women in uniform still suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and behavioral health conditions," Portman said in a statement.

"While the Department of Defense has made great strides in the way it treats these invisible wounds of war, the steady persistence of this problem demonstrates the need for more action," he said.

Lopez was being diagnosed for post-traumatic stress disorder, and treated for depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. He was taking prescription drugs, including Ambien, officials say.

He had self-reported a traumatic brain injury, although his medical and deployment records did not indicate he had any such injury.

It was not clear if those conditions were related to his two deployments. Lopez had last deployed in 2011 for four months to Iraq, from August to December. He also deployed for a year to Cairo in 2007.

The bill would also screen those moving from reserves to active duty. Lopez had served for nine years in the Army National Guard in Puerto Rico before enlisting in the active duty Army in 2010.

"This bill goes a long way toward effective screening, so that we can identify problems early and provide better care," said Rockefeller.