Gates acknowledges mistakes in treatment of troops

(Adds background on related lawsuit, paragraph 3)

FORT BLISS, Texas, May 1 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday said the military had made mistakes in treating returning combat troops including in their physical and mental health care and by providing some sub-standard housing.

In a visit to Fort Bliss, Texas, Gates announced a change in government procedures to encourage troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without fear of losing their security clearances and harming their careers.

The announcement came just a day after closing arguments in a San Francisco federal court case in which veterans allege the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to deal with the growing number of PTSD cases emerging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Gates acknowledged not all of the more than 1.5 million military service members who have been deployed overseas have received needed medical treatment and accommodations.

"I know that the department is not perfect and mistakes have been, and will be made. Things happen too slowly," Gates said in a speech to a group of junior officers.

"I share your frustration," he added.

Gates initiated an overhaul of the military's medical system after a scandal last year at Walter Reed hospital in Washington where soldiers were found living in a building infested with mice, mold and cockroaches and many soldiers were unable to get treatment because of bureaucratic red tape.


On Thursday, Gates turned his attention to a video presentation about housing for returning troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina that was posted on the Web site

The 10-minute video shows soldiers who served for 15 months in Afghanistan living in a barracks where sewage backed up into sinks, lead-based paint peeled from overhead pipes and broken toilet seats were repaired with cardboard and tape.

"Soldiers should never have to live in such squalor," said Gates, who said he had reviewed the posting.

"It is the duty of every commander, indeed everyone responsible for our men and women in uniform, to ensure that our troops have decent living conditions."

The Army has launched an investigation into the conditions at the barracks, officials said.

To enhance care for soldiers suffering from PTSD, Gates announced that a security clearance form used throughout the U.S. government would be changed to free troops from an obligation to acknowledge combat-related mental-health care.

That change follows numerous studies that found troops suffering from post-traumatic stress after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan believed their security clearances, critical to their jobs, would be at risk if they sought care.

Question 21, which Gates called "infamous," asks applicants whether they have consulted a mental health professional in the past seven years. If the answer is "Yes," they must list details.

"It now is clear to people who answer that question that they can answer 'No' if they have sought help to deal with their combat stress in general terms," Gates told a news conference.

The form, known as the Questionnaire for National Security Positions, is used throughout the U.S. government, but the change initially affects only troops and the Pentagon's civilian workforce.

RAND Corp estimated that 300,000 troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from symptoms of PTSD or depression. Military studies have seen similar results. The Army in February said 17.9 percent of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced acute stress, depression or anxiety in 2007. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Todd Eastham)