April. 3, 2008 – A week before Army Gen. David Petraeus updates Congress on the war in Iraq, two new studies have found that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from especially high rates of post-combat psychological problems, exacerbated by an unusually high rate of repeat deployments.
Some of the most severely affected troops are in the National Guard, often detailed to front-line combat positions.
The studies were conducted by Veterans for America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization led by Bobby Muller, whose efforts to ban landmines earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Politico received early copies of the reports, set to be released Friday.
Muller is particularly concerned because Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to tell Congress that overall troop reductions should be put on hold, pending a reassessment.
Muller’s group argues that changing overall deployment policies to give troops time to recover from combat situations would have a far greater impact than piecemeal mental health legislation.
“We are compounding the injuries for those who already served,” Muller said, calling multiple deployments without sufficient rest a “prescription for catastrophe.”
Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Laurie Tranter said the department would have no comment because officials had not seen the studies.
But in a hearing before a House defense panel last month, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said the military is trying to deal with the mental health issues.
“It’s a challenge for us,” he said. “The military has always struggled with it in wartime.” And he acknowledged that the mental health problems follow the troops home and “affect their families.”
A report by the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health last year found that the military health system “lacks the fiscal resources and the fully trained personnel to fulfill its mission.”
The veterans group’s findings come as Congress is considering numerous legislative initiatives to help veterans deal with the stress of the war, with programs ranging from counseling to suicide prevention.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised the veterans group’s work and called for “humane deployment cycles.”
“These critical reports reveal how our overstretched and misused military is among the most devastating costs of this war,” Reid said in a statement to Politico. “Our nation’s bravest volunteers deserve our gratitude for their service and sacrifice; they do not deserve to be sent on extended and repeated tours in an endless civil war.”
The studies found that National Guard troops do not receive the same level of care as regular Army soldiers when they return home. They often do not have the same on-base medical clinics as the regular Army and are often quickly thrust back into civilian life with little support.
Psychological effects were found in 49 percent of National Guard troops after returning from the battlefield – 29 percentage points higher than for regular soldiers.
The National Guard troops are treated like “bastard stepchildren,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said in a recent meeting with Maryland veterans.
In total, more than 1.6 million troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a third have served at least two tours of duty, and some, as many as four.
Post-combat psychological problems for troops increased by 125 percent between their first and third or fourth deployments, according to one of the studies, which cited internal military statistics.
The military acknowledges the problems of lengthy deployments but says it needs to maintain troop levels.
In testimony last month before the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said the Army’s research showed that combat tours of “15 months is too long; 12 months home is too short.” He said that the Army’s goal this summer is to reduce deployment time to one year but that there were no immediate plans to increase leave times.
Over the past three years, the Army has begun a program to send mental health counselors to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army is also providing counseling to military families and is seeking more recruits in order to ease the burden on existing troops.
“We are doing everything we can to mitigate [the stress on soldiers] in a time of crisis,” Army public affairs spokesman Paul Boyce said Wednesday.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has sponsored legislation to give military personnel mandated periods of rest between combat deployments, but his bill was defeated twice last year after close votes and opposition from the Pentagon. Still, Senate Democratic leaders are considering reintroducing it.
The Veterans for America findings also appear to correlate with a recently published study in The New England Journal of Medicine, which found that 42 percent of reservists returning from Iraq required mental health services, more than double that of active-duty soldiers.
The report, which mixes military studies with firsthand reporting, found that National Guard troops received less care and had little institutional support when compared with regular soldiers. National Guard veterans who requested compensation by the Department of Veterans Affairs were twice as likely as regular soldiers to be rejected, the study found.
The wait time for mental health care can be long. For instance, Veterans for America reported some soldiers had to wait two months for an appointment.
Other veterans groups say soldiers who have seen combat may not be getting the mental health care they need, said Patrick Campbell, the legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group that was not involved with the studies.
His group is advocating for mandatory in-person screenings by mental health professionals for all veterans returning from combat, not just the over-the-phone interviews that are currently in place. “They are just being released from a war zone back into their normal lives. It is hard to process,” said Campbell, a decorated Iraq veteran who uses VA facilities himself.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has sought information from the VA on waiting times for mental and other types of health treatment, but the data the agency provided have been inconsistent, according to a committee aide. “It has been frustrating,” he said.
“Care for service members returning from combat must be considered a cost of war.”
The committee recently passed a bill that would provide for treatment of substance abuse at VA facilities and study its relationship with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The VA has cut back on substance abuse treatment in recent years.
Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), would study the increase in suicide across the armed forces. Attempts have increased sixfold since 2002, according to the senators.
And Mikulski is among a group of legislators seeking $45 million for a state-run initiative, known as the “Yellow Ribbon” program, to help National Guard troops who have been in combat make the transition back to civilian life. The program was enacted early this year but so far has received no funding.
Rick Breitenfeldt, spokesman for the National Guard, said the Yellow Ribbon program is an important method of helping returning troops. “The word is out that National Guard troops and airmen need this program,” he said.
But while Congress debates specifics, the overall system of care for returning soldiers remains badly overburdened and will only get worse unless changes are made soon, veterans advocates say.
“We know what works,” Campbell said. “We’re just not doing it.”