A majority of U.S. soldiers in Iraq say morale is low, according to an Army report that finds psychological stress is weighing particularly heavily on National Guard and Reserve troops.
Still, soldiers’ mental health has improved from the early months of the insurgency, and suicides have declined sharply, the report said. Also, substantially fewer soldiers had to be evacuated from Iraq for mental health problems last year.
The Army sent a team of mental health specialists to Iraq and Kuwait late last summer to assess conditions and measure progress in implementing programs designed to fix mental health problems discovered during a similar survey of troops a year earlier. Its report, dated Jan. 30, 2005, was released Wednesday.
The initial inquiry was triggered in part by an unusual surge in suicides among soldiers in Iraq in July 2003. Wednesday’s report said the number of suicides in Iraq and Kuwait declined from 24 in 2003 to nine last year.
A suicide prevention program was begun for soldiers in Iraq at the recommendation of the 2003 assessment team.
The overall assessment said 13 percent of soldiers in the most recent study screened positive for a mental health problem, compared with 18 percent a year earlier. Symptoms of acute or post-traumatic stress remained the top mental health problem, affecting at least 10 percent of all soldiers checked in the latest survey.
In the anonymous survey, 17 percent of soldiers said they had experienced moderate or severe stress or problems with alcohol, emotions or their families. That compares with 23 percent a year earlier.
The report said reasons for the improvement in mental health are not clear. Among possible explanations: less frequent and less intense combat, more comforts like air conditioning, wider access to mental health services and improved training in handling the stresses associated with deployments and combat.
National Guard and Reserve soldiers who serve in transportation and support units suffered more than others from depression, anxiety and other indications of acute psychological stress, the report said. These soldiers have often been targets of the insurgents’ lethal ambushes and roadside bombs, although the report said they had significantly fewer actual combat experiences than soldiers assigned to combat units.
The report recommended that the Army reconsider whether National Guard and Reserve support troops are getting adequate training in combat skills. Even though they do less fighting than combat troops, they might be better suited to cope with wartime stress if they had more confidence in their combat skills, it said.
Only 55 percent of National Guard support soldiers said they have “real confidence” in their unit’s ability to perform its mission, compared with 63 percent of active-duty Army support soldiers. And only 28 percent of the Guard troops rated their level of training as high, compared with 50 percent of their active-duty counterparts.
Small focus groups were held to ascertain troop morale.
The report said 54 percent of soldiers rated their units’ morale as low or very low. The comparable figure in a year-earlier Army survey was 72 percent. Although respondents said “combat stressors” like mortar attacks were higher in the most recent survey, “noncombat stressors” like uncertain tour lengths were much lower, the report said.
The thing that bothered soldiers the most, the latest assessment said, was the length of their required stay in Iraq. At the start of the war, most were deployed for six months, but now they go for 12 months.
Asked about this, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference that the Army’s 12-month requirement is linked in part to its effort to complete a fundamental reorganization of fighting units.
“I’ve tried to get the Army to look at the length of tours and I think at some point down the road they will,” he said.