Defense Department health leaders provided testimony March 7, 2023, at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez said the department is committing resources with a focus on preventing suicides of military and family members.
“We recently received the recommendation from the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee and are continuing to implement strategies that can help reverse the heartbreaking trends that we have witnessed both in DOD and in the nation,” he said.
Mental health is an issue that can be discussed today, he said. “In the Vietnam days, for whatever reason, we didn’t talk openly about these kinds of issues that needed to be spoken about,” he said.
However, there is still a stigma about discussing mental health crises. Changing the culture takes time. “We’re really making headway. But we’re not done yet,” he said.
“It’s not just a medical issue. It’s an issue that encompasses personnel actions. It’s an issue that encompasses financial issues. Anything that brings more stress, we have to figure out how to lessen that load on service members,” Martinez-Lopez said.
“We are resolute in our commitment to ensure combatant commanders have the medical resources necessary to protect, treat and provide long-term care and medical services to our men and women in uniform,” he said.
The department remains grateful for the long-term support from this committee for military medical research in those areas of most pressing needs and relevance for today’s emerging threats, he said.
That includes combating infectious diseases, treating combat casualties, and other areas of importance to warfighters, he said.
DOD’s fiscal year 2024 budget will present a balanced, comprehensive strategy that aligns with the secretary’s priorities, he said.
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle testified that “Army medicine has achieved the highest survivability rate for soldiers wounded on and off the battlefield in recent decades. We did this by remaining agile and adaptive. We applied the lessons from operations and developed a holistic system for future operations in austere locations.”
Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce L. Gillingham noted that “Navy medicine is taking urgent action to support the Navy and Marine Corps and save lives in a contested battlespace that is quickly growing in lethality, complexity and scope,” he said.
Another key priority, he said, is ensuring sailors and Marines have access to the full continuum of mental health resources.
“Embedded mental health remains vital for mental wellness by placing mental health as far forward as possible,” he said.
“Our ability to quickly deploy and support a crisis response around the world makes military medicine unique, but more importantly, demands that we’re both operationally relevant and clinically prepared,” he said.
Defense Health Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland and Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Robert I. Miller also testified.