$45.3M fund targets mental health in special ops

Lawmakers are planning to increase their focus on the health of special operations forces after more than a decade of steady deployments and heavy combat. 

The House’s defense bill proposal, released this week by Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, would authorize a total of $45.3 million for behavioral and psychological health programs and efforts specifically for Special Operations Forces. 

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That would include more than doubling funds, from $14.8 to $38.1 million, to immediately increase the number of behavioral health care providers embedded with units, such as psychologists, social workers, nurse case managers and operational psychologists.

“The committee remains troubled by the prevalence of suicide within the military community,” said a bill summary. “Chairman McKeon is also concerned about the growth in the suicide rate in the special operations community and a number of provisions in the bill are designed to help reverse this trend.”

Navy Admiral Bill McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, has expressed concern in recent years over the fraying health of his forces. 

Although he did not give a specific figure, he said the number of special operations forces committing suicide has been at record highs for the past two years. 

“And this year, I am afraid, we are on path to break that,” McRaven said last month at a defense conference in Tampa, according to Reuters. “My soldiers have been fighting now for 12, 13 years in hard combat. Hard combat. And anybody that has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It's that simple.”

The panel’s Readiness Subcommittee and the Military Personnel Subcommittee both included language in their 2015 defense bill markups that call for reviewing the Pentagon’s suicide prevention efforts for special operations forces and their families. 

“Special operations forces have some unique challenges, they have unique responsibilities, so part of this subcommittee’s responsibility is to make sure we keep track of those things — the things that are different from or maybe in addition to the normal forces,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), readiness subcommittee chairman said Thursday.

“So I’m concerned about their suicide rates. So we want to make a special effort,” he said.