By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - The U.S. Army, grappling with a spike in military suicides, plans to take steps to improve soldiers' resilience to mental health problems to combat such deaths as well as depression, substance abuse, and violent behavior, Army Secretary John McHugh said on Monday.
McHugh ordered Army officials to lay out detailed plans by February 15 to boost soldiers' "physical, emotional and psychological resilience," but did not reveal program specifics, such as estimated costs or goals.
"Interventions are not coming as soon as I would like to see them," McHugh told a news conference at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. "Taking care of soldiers is one of our top priorities. It is not just a necessity but a moral imperative."
The announcement came after the U.S. military acknowledged in January that suicides had hit a record last year, outpacing combat deaths, with 349 active-duty suicides - almost one per day.
McHugh said in the order he hopes to eliminate "any stigma or barriers associated with seeking help," and later acknowledged that there was widespread confusion over the resources available to help soldiers and bureaucratic red-tape.
However, he did not reveal the findings of a year-long review of the Army's diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems going back to 2001.
The review was partly prompted by accusations last year that a mental-health screening team at the base's Madigan Army Medical Center had reversed diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder after considering affiliated Army retirement and benefit costs.
The Army reviewed those cases and determined that in some instances the original PTSD diagnoses were more accurate and said it would conduct a review of all diagnoses and evaluations made at its medical facilities.
"This effort in part began after several issues were raised about the inconsistencies with PTSD diagnosis," McHugh said.
U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, who pushed for the review at the base, where two soldiers are being held pending courts martial for shootings in which lawyers or the military have suggested PTSD may have been a factor, said Monday's announcement did not do enough.
"While I'm pleased that the Army has announced they have completed this study, it's far more important that they take quick action to remedy the problem," Murray said in a statement.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of the largest military bases in the country, is the home base of Robert Bales, a decorated combat veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers last March.
Bales' lawyers said in January the 39-year-old father of two was diagnosed before his deployment as suffering from PTSD and a brain injury.
Also being held at the base is John Russell, 48, who is accused of killing five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq in 2009, a shooting frenzy the military has said might have been triggered by combat stress.
Lieutenant General Robert Brown, the top base commander, said it is important that "soldiers look after other soldiers."
(Reporting by Laura L. Myers; Writing by Eric M. Johnson.; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)