Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed frustration Wednesday with the pace of government work to heal the mental health wounds of war.
Thousands of troops are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries and mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. And the military is working to stem a rising number of suicides among troops.
Recalling a meeting last year with a group of homeless veterans from the recent wars, Mullen said he worries about the rise of a new generation of transients like some who returned from the Vietnam War.
"Shame on us if we don't figure it out this time around to make sure that doesn't happen," Mullen said at a defense forum on the nonphysical injuries of war in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.
He said the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs Department must do a better job in the decades to come to jointly solve the problem.
Hundreds of thousands veterans from the recent wars have left the military and entered the VA's system for care. Veterans have long complained about bureaucratic hurdles as they've made the switch. President Barack Obama has promised to create a more seamless transition system.
Besides the military and VA, Mullen said local communities have a responsibility to help veterans as they transition back home into their communities.
Mullen said he worries about "those who have seen hell" at war, then leave the military before they are ready. He said he'd like to see something worked out so that service members can exit the armed services when they are mentally prepared to go and not abruptly when their contract ends.
"They are alone, they have no structure and they don't have that support, and they've got a lot to work through," Mullen said.