Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that troops injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face too many bureaucratic hurdles.
Paperwork alone for them can be "frustrating, adversarial, and unnecessarily complex," Gates said.
Gates spoke at a mental health summit with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. By appearing publicly together, they sought to reinforce their commitment to tackling veterans' health issues and the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
Earlier this year, they pledged with President Barack Obama to create a system that would make it easier for the Pentagon and VA to exchange information so there is less of a wait for veterans to get disability benefits. The VA is struggling with a backlogged disability claims system with hundreds of thousands of claims that need to be processed.
Among U.S. troops who have fought in the recent wars, Gates says brain injuries and mental health ailments are "widespread, entrenched and insidious." He noted that a RAND Corp. study last year estimated that there could be more than 600,000 service members with traumatic brain injuries or mental health issues.
Gates said there have been positive changes such as the doubling of the budget for mental health and traumatic brain injuries to almost $1.2 billion from last year, but other challenges remain such as filling a shortage of therapists in and near military installations.
About 2 million troops have fought in the recent wars. Tens of thousands have been physically injured, while hundreds of thousands have entered the VA's health care system.
Shinseki said veterans from the recent wars are coming homes with "invisible wounds" that are just as debilitating as physical traumas sustained on the battlefield.
"Who's vulnerable? Everyone," Shinseki said. "Warriors suffer emotional injuries as much as they do physical ones."