By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
After nearly 11 years of war and hundreds of millions of dollars in research on the mental health of troops, the military is no closer to understanding how many deployments are too many for individual servicemembers, researchers say.
Military leaders have said the nation has never fought wars this long with this small of a military, deploying troops over and over. Yet questions about how many times a soldier can recycle into combat without psychological harm remain unanswered, reseachers say.
“I think it’s definitely disappointing that we don’t know. I wish we did,” says retired Navy Capt. William Nash, a psychiatrist studying resiliency within Marine battalions.
The issue of multiple deployments was one of many raised following the March 11 massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan, allegedly by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Bales, 38, was on his fourth combat deployment when the shootings occurred.
Many of the issues reported about Bales — repeated combat exposure, physical injuries and personal finance and career problems — are common stresses on troops, scientists say. Yet 107,000 service members have deployed three or more times without incident.
“The question we don’t have answered is how do we get precision about picking out the people who are really going to be in trouble,” says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University.
Scores of studies have looked at the wars’ impact on behavior and mental health. But the work has been done “in piecemeal fashion,” offering a snapshot analysis of a group of servicemembers at one point in time, says Terri Tanielian, a senior research analyst at RAND Corp.
The Pentagon may have missed a chance to follow large numbers of combat troops through the war in what is called a longitudinal study to better understand how behavioral problems develop, say Tanielian, Wadsworth and Nash.
Col. Paul Bliese, an Army scientist, agrees about the lack of a longitudinal study. But he and the others say there is important ongoing analysis.
The Army and National Institute of Mental Health launched a five-year longitudinal study of 9,000 soldiers in 2011 to better understand suicide.
A series of Army field studies of troops in combat co-led by Bliese, known as Mental Health Advisory Team Reports, produced waves of data underscoring a link between deployments and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most promising, researchers say, is a massive, 21-year longitudinal study begun by the Navy before the war looking at how military life impacts mental and physical health. While not tailored specifically to the conflicts to come, 80,000 troops enrolled in the study have deployed and key findings are emerging, says Nancy Crum-Cianflone, the director of the study.
New research published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found 85% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans showed little or no PTSD symptoms over a decade. The 4.5% with “worsening-chronic” PTSD signs were mostly soldiers with severe combat experience