updated 6/21/2007 4:50:05 PM ET 2007-06-21T20:50:05

Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised Thursday to improve the much-criticized mental health system for the military, declaring "this is something that we can, must and will get fixed."

A year-long study released last week said more money and people are needed to provide care for troops returning from war — many suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. It also said the Pentagon needs to build a culture of support throughout the military to help remove the stigma associated with asking for and getting psychological help.

Gates told a Pentagon news conference that he supports a proposal that would do away with the practice of asking troops about previous mental health treatment when they apply for a security clearance.

"Too many avoid seeking mental health help because of the fear of losing their security clearance," he said.

A form required by the Office of Personnel Management — the agency that does the majority of investigations for granting military and civilian government security clearances — asks if applicants have gotten mental health care in the last seven years. If so, they are asked to list the names, addresses and dates they saw a doctor or therapist — a practice that critics say sends a mixed message in that it discourages people from seeking treatment.

The Pentagon has been working for some time to end the stigma of counseling. Studies indicate that soldiers most in need of post-combat health care are the least likely to get it because they fear that others will have less confidence in them, that it will threaten career advancement and that it could result in the loss of their security clearance and possibly removal from their unit.

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