FORT BLISS, Texas (AFPS, May 1, 2008) - The Defense Department is working to reduce stress on the force and improve quality of life for the troops, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Soldiers at the Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss Friday.

As part of that effort, Gates announced earlier Friday that the Defense Department will no longer require people who have received treatment for combat-related stress to report it on Standard Form 86, the government security-clearance form.

"Mental health treatment in and of itself will not be a reason to revoke or deny a clearance," Gates told the senior NCOs at the academy. "We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help."

Gates asked the senior leaders' help in getting troops who need it to seek combat-related mental health care.

"Our country, in recent years, has asked a tremendous amount of you and those who serve with and under you, and everyone has risen to the occasion," Gates told the senior noncommissioned officers, all attending the Army's top NCO school and bound for sergeant major and command sergeant major jobs in the force.

He conceded that "no one expected major combat operations in Iraq to go on this long" and cited the challenges: "multiple and sometimes extended deployments, the stresses of battle, the wounds of war, both seen and unseen."

"All of this has taken its toll on our troops and their families," Gates said. Yet, he noted, morale remains high, "testimony to the extraordinary honor, courage and resilience of those who serve, as well as the leadership and mentoring provided by the senior NCO corps."

But that high morale can't be taken for granted, Gates said. "I know I am preaching to the choir when I tell you that, as senior leaders, we must all be ever cognizant of stress on the force -- stress that has been greatly increased in recent years," he said.

Gates outlined measures being taken to reduce that stress and improve Soldiers' quality of life.

Combat deployments are being reduced from 15 to 12 months in light of changes on the ground and gains made. Gates expressed hope that conditions on the ground will enable force levels in Iraq to reduce further by the year's end. A more sustainable deployment rotation will be adopted within the next year or so, with the active force serving two years at home after every one year overseas.

"From my perspective, we are trying to strike a balance: to reduce the tempo of deployment without compromising our strategic objectives or national security," Gates said.

The United States is growing its ground forces and will add 7,000 troops to the Army as part of a five-year, 65,000-troop expansion. The Marine Corps is getting larger too and will complete its 27,000-member expansion next year, two years ahead of schedule.

"With a larger pool of soldiers and forces available, individual Soldiers and their units should be deployed less frequently, with more dwell time at home," Gates said.

The secretary cited vast improvements in emergency care on the front lines and in the Army medical system. Since last year's revelations of what he called "deplorable outpatient conditions" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Gates said, he has focused a lot of time and energy on the system of care for wounded warriors.

"We have made great strides, even though more remains to be done," he said.

New warriors-in-transition campuses are revolutionizing the way wounded warriors are getting medical treatment and rehabilitation, he said. With an NCO with them throughout the process, wounded troops get help navigating the full range of support available for their families.

Gone are the days, Gates said, when wounded warriors are considered "permanently broken."

"The reality is that these extraordinary young men and women are far from broken," he said.

The Defense Department also is emphasizing care for troops with post-traumatic stress disorder, Gates told the NCOs, but he admitted that not all are getting the treatment they need.

In addition to new screening procedures that will help ensure no one "slips through the cracks" of the care system, the department is actively working to eliminate the stigma associated with PTSD, he said.

Gates called on the NCOs, the "backbone of the military," for help in getting Soldiers who may have hesitated in the past to step forward to now get the care they need.

"All of you have a special role in encouraging troops to seek help for the unseen scars of war -- to let them know that doing so is a sign of strength and maturity," Gates told the group. "I urge you all to talk with those below you to find out where we can continue to improve.

"Those who have sacrificed for our nation deserve the best care they can get," he continued. "As I have said before, there is no higher priority for the Department of Defense, after the war itself, than caring for our wounded warriors."

(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service.)