Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama proposed spending hundreds of million dollars more each year for better mental health services for active duty troops and veterans.
"We're falling far short in addressing the mental health care needs of these heroes, and that's inexcusable," he said in remarks prepared for a town hall-style meeting in the afternoon.
Traveling over the Memorial Day weekend with his family in this early nominating state, the Illinois senator urged the Pentagon to recruit more mental health professions to help identify and treat problems. He said improvements are needed at every stage of military service: recruitment, deployment and re-entry into civilian life.
"I believe strongly that there is a sacred trust between this country and those who serve it," according to an advance text of his remarks provided to The Associated Press. "That trust begins the moment a service member signs on and lasts the duration of his or her life."
Obama has made his opposition to the war in Iraq a central part of his campaign. His fervent opposition has helped rally anti-war voters. Critics note Obama was serving in the Illinois Senate when Congress authorized the war in Iraq.
According to Obama's plan, mental health treatment would be a regular part of military life. There would be improved screening and treatment and no denial of benefits due to pre-existing conditions. Military families would receive more counseling and support.
Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said that for the past four years, the Defense Department aggressively has reached out to support the troops before, during and after their deployments.
"We have screened the health, including the mental health, of more than 1 million service members. We have placed combat stress/mental health teams in the theater to address needs and issues that arise during deployments. We have designed numerous soldier-and-family support systems that identify problems early and prevent them," he said.
Upton said the Pentagon also has a new program to meet with every service member three to six months after the return home.
"We ask how they are doing, how things are going with overall health, mental health, family and social concerns. Problems are identified and addressed," Upton said.
Obama aides said he would propose increasing the Veterans Affairs Department's budget. The changes he advocates are expected to cost several hundred million dollars a year, they said.
To help cover the cost, Obama was expected to propose better collection of unpaid taxes owed by defense contractors. A second source could come from recovering more money from third-party payers at Defense Department and VA hospitals.
An internal VA review released this month said veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are at increased risk of suicide because not all agency health clinics have 24-hour mental care available.
The report by department's inspector general was the first comprehensive look at VA mental health care, particularly suicide prevention.
Already strained troops and veterans say they are suffering more psychological problems due to repeated and extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier in May, a panel of medical experts said the surge in the number of veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder requires development of better tests to evaluate affected personnel and determine how best to compensate them.