President Barack Obama says his administration is determined to help servicemen, veterans and their families with their economic and health care needs as conflicts overseas end or wind down and they return to the nation they have served.
Obama spoke at Fort Bliss on the second anniversary of his last visit to the post when he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Obama arrived at Fort Bliss at about 11:30 a.m. and had a round-table discussion with soldiers and families who have sought help through the post's behavioral health system.
He praised the soldiers during his speech.
"I've come back to Bliss for a simple reason. Two years ago, I was here to mark a historic moment in the life of our nation and our military -- the end of major combat operations in Iraq. It was a chance for me to say on behalf of the American people to you and all who served there -- welcome home, and congratulations on a job well done," Obama said. "In every major phase of that war, you were there, the Iron Soldiers. Because of your speed and strength, American troops toppled a dictator in less than a month. Because of your commitment, you stayed on extended tours and went back, tour after tour, year after year. Because of your determination to succeed, you turned back an insurgency. You stood firm against sectarian strife. You helped pull Iraq back from the abyss and you trained Iraqis to take the lead. That was the progress you made possible with your service and your courage."
The president then talked about an executive order he signed Friday directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.
"Today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger and the United States is more respected in the world. Some of your buddies are still there (in Afghanistan)," Obama said. "Some of you will be deploying there later this year. This is still a tough fight. Six Fort Bliss soldiers gave their lives last month."
Six Fort Bliss soldiers were killed in an IED explosion in early July. About 4,000 soldiers from Fort Bliss will deploy to Afghanistan this winter.
Of the U.S. military that have been killed during the wars of the past decade, Obama said "your loved ones live on in the soul of our nation."
Obama said supporting soldiers when they return home is just as important as supporting them when they are overseas fighting.
"Everyone has a responsibility to help a comrade who's hurting," Obama said. "If you're hurting, it's not a sign of weakness to seek help, it's a sign of strength.
Fort Bliss commanding general, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard said "We agree that there is a need for even more behavioral health specialists. We know that in this area we're underserved, we do need more."
Highlights of the president's executive order:
- Strengthens suicide prevention efforts across the force and in the veteran community
- Enhances access to mental health care by building partnerships between VA and community providers
- Increases the number of VA mental health providers serving our veterans
- Promotes mental health research and development of more effective treatment methodologies
- Launches a government-wide collaborative effort to address these issues through a Military and Veterans Mental Health Interagency Task Force
Earlier this month Fort Bliss received the 2012 LivingWorks Award of Excellence for the post's suicide prevention efforts.
Fort Bliss has the lowest number of suicides of any major Army installation in the contiguous United States and the post is the first military installation to ever receive the prestigious award.
"We are personally committed to making sure all of our soldiers seek help whenever they need it. Seeking help takes courage and it is the right thing to do," Pittard wrote in a recent Fort Bliss Monitor column.
Suicides among active-duty soldiers in July more than doubled from June, accelerating a trend throughout the military this year that has prompted Pentagon leaders to redouble efforts to solve a puzzling problem.
The Army, which is the only branch of the military that issues monthly press statements on suicides, said 26 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in July, compared with 12 in June. The July total was the highest for any month since the Army began reporting suicides by month in 2009, according to Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia, an Army spokeswoman.
The Marine Corps had eight suicides in July, up from six in June. The July figure was its highest monthly total of 2012 and pushed its total for the year so far to 32 – equal to the Marines' total for all of 2011. The Marines' July figure is being posted on its website but was provided first to The Associated Press.
The Air Force said it had six in July, compared with two in June. The Navy had four in July but its June figure was not immediately available.
The Army's suicide numbers have been higher than the other services, in part because it is substantially larger than the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. The Army also has had more members in combat over the past decade. It was the main ground force in Iraq and has a preponderance of the U.S. troops today in Afghanistan.
For the first seven months of 2012, the Army recorded 116 suicides among active-duty soldiers. If that pace were maintained through December the year's total would approach 200, compared with 167 for all of 2011.
"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff, who is spearheading his service's efforts to find ways to halt the surge in suicides.
"That said, I do believe suicide is preventable," Austin added. "To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."