By Laura Koran
October 6, 2015
The head of the U.S. military's most elite forces doesn't just talk the talk of ending the stigma of seeking mental health help. He has walked the walk -- into the counselor's office himself.
Army Gen. Joe Votel, commander of U.S. Special Forces Command, has used the support programs offered by the U.S. military for his own family.
"We went down and took advantage of some family-life counselors that were available to us," he told CNN in a recent exclusive interview, though he didn't elaborate further. "It was right there available to everybody, and we took advantage of it."
The 35-year veteran of Special Operations has a message for his troops: "Is it is absolutely normal and expected that you will ask for help."
His time in the military has taught Votel that the demands of constant training and prolonged deployments can take a toll on troops and their families.
"The injuries that our people deal with aren't always physical ones," said Votel. "These are hard-charging people. They suppress stuff and it comes out later, and so we have to have the capability to take care of that."
He particularly wants his troops to know that even with the stigma that has historically attached to seeking help for post-traumatic stress in the military, going to a counselor won't hinder their careers.
"If you hurt yourself doing (physical training) in the morning, you go to the doctor and be taken care of ... and it's the same way if you're having stress or emotional issues," Votel said. "We want you to come forward."
Special Operations Command does not maintain statistics on post-traumatic stress cases because of privacy prohibitions, but a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs study found that 30% of service members who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan received the diagnosis.
Votel noted, "I'm as vulnerable to it as anybody."
Suicide is of particular concern because the Special Operations community has historically experienced it at a higher rate than conventional forces.
In recent years, the command invested in offering support resources for its personnel to tackle the issue.
Votel's predecessor, Navy Adm. William McRaven, created the Preservation of Force and Family initiative for exactly this reason, and the effort seems to be paying off.
While suicide rates fluctuate, they trend downward in the Special Operations community. While they stood at 23 among Special Operations personnel in 2012, they have decreased each year since then to total just 12 so far in 2015.
Despite this progress, Votel says his command will remain vigilant when it comes addressing all-too-prevalent emotional and mental conditions, both for his men and for himself.
"My command psychologist always comes in and gives me a rundown on the things that are happening in the command, and things that she is seeing," Votel told CNN. "The last question she always asks is, 'And how are you doing?' And then we have a little discussion about me."