WASHINGTON – Traumatic brain injury, one of the signature injuries suffered by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, demands a “sense of urgency,” the U.S. military’s top officer said today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Defense Department is in the early stages of understanding the impact of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, a mental condition characterized by headaches, dizziness, lacking motor coordination, memory loss and other symptoms.

“What I worry about is these … injuries are different,” he said at the National Press Club. “This is not like a football head injury or a boxing head injury. It is the catastrophic aspect of this explosion, which just affects the brain differently.”

In wide-ranging remarks this morning, Mullen emphasized the importance of focusing on TBI and other issues affecting troops and their families. He said he supports efforts by those within and outside the department to better understand TBI.

“It is very clear the sooner you treat them, the better the outcome is going to be,” he said. “So there needs to be a real sense of urgency here, and there are an awful lot of people involved in that. And I try to support what they’re doing as much as I possibly can.”

Mullen also cited post-traumatic stress — another prevalent effect of combat — as a great concern. He said the stigma attached to mental health treatment often contributes to the problem.

“It almost starts with the stigma issue, which we have to continue, as leaders, to break down, because it’s hard to say, ‘I need help.’ And it too often gets used against you,” he said.

Mullen added that he and his wife have heard such anecdotes from spouses of servicemembers with post-traumatic stress symptoms who fear seeking help because they don’t want to affect their military spouse’s career adversely.

“So we’ve just got to break that down and make it acceptable to ask for help in what is, by and large, something that is a temporary condition that, again, if it’s addressed quickly, its effects can be greatly minimized.

Therefore, he said, the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders are focused on the issue. “But we’ve still got a long way to go,” he acknowledged.

Speaking about the much-reported stress on the force stemming from multiple and lengthy deployments, Mullen said he doesn’t see the U.S. military nearing a tipping point where forces will begin losing experienced troops.

“But I think we do have to make sure we keep a laser focus on this, … support our families who have been extraordinary, take care of those who’ve been wounded, and ensure that they have lives of great contribution in the future,” the chairman said. That care includes education, the right medical care and an opportunity buy a home, he added.

Mullen noted a “sea of goodwill” from an American public interested in showing support in various ways to U.S. forces. One of his challenges, he said, is to transform the outpouring into tangible support.

“The challenge that I and many other leaders here in Washington have is how do you connect that sea of goodwill to the need?” he said. “And we’re actually working our way through being able to do that, and we’re also looking for anyone who wants to try to assist us in that regard.”

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