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Pentagon's mental-health investigators visit Fort Carson behind closed doors

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The Pentagon's Task Force on Mental Health this week is visiting Fort Carson, where controversy has simmered for months over whether soldiers who returned from war with psychological trauma are receiving help from the nation they defended.

But the task force's visit this Thursday and Friday isn't open to the public.

"Some people may not want to discuss their situation publicly," explains Cynthia Vaughan, a spokeswoman for Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley, whose office coordinates the task force.

The task force comes at a time when roughly one of every three active-duty troops has been deployed more than once.

Kiley is scheduled to speak with media during the visit, says Lt. Gregory Dorman, spokesman for the Army post. But that's not the same as allowing the public and the media to hear open testimony, in which people may come forward to cast light on perceived problems, says Steve Robinson, government relations director of Veterans for America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

"Unfortunately, they're trying to make it as non-controversial as possible," Robinson says. "I think in the end, they're only going to get part of the picture."

More than a dozen war-weary soldiers at Fort Carson have alleged they did not receive adequate care for post-traumatic stress disorder if they received care at all. Several were disciplined for problems symptomatic of the disorder and discharged in a fashion that caused them to lose long-term access to military health and other benefits, the Independent discovered in an investigation last year.

Fort Carson officials repeatedly have defended the post's care of such soldiers.

PTSD cases at the Army post have increased by more than 450 percent since the Iraq war began in 2003, partly the result of multiple deployments, according to post experts.

The 14-member task force includes Defense Department health officials, representatives from government health agencies and civilian psychological experts. It was created last year in legislation by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Since September, the Task Force on Mental Health has held five open meetings, including two in California.

The meetings have attracted healthy crowds eager to discuss problems and to find solutions, Robinson says.

During an open meeting in San Diego, Navy Cmdr. Mark Russell came forward to say the military has too few mental-health professionals and too little training to manage an increasing number of war veterans with significant psychological problems.

Meanwhile, the task force has conducted hushed "site visits" at 30 military and veteran sites in 11 states and in Korea.

This is the task force's first visit to Colorado, and not all its members will attend, Vaughan says. Members aim to solicit feedback on many mental-health issues, including PTSD, across the nation before issuing a report in May, she says.

She would not comment on any findings so far.

Sens. Boxer, Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., urged an investigation of care at Fort Carson in the aftermath of a special report on National Public Radio. The report, which came out in December, quoted soldiers with PTSD being kicked out for disciplinary reasons.

Vaughan says the task force's visit has nothing to do with such media reports.

Meanwhile, Robinson says America's promise to support the troops is at stake.

"If we let down even one soldier who honorably served," he says, "we have failed."

deyoanna@csindy.com

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