April 6, 2008 – Washington, DC — Army leaders are expressing increased alarm about the mental health of soldiers who would be sent back to the front again and again under plans that call for troop numbers to be sustained at high levels in Iraq for this year and beyond.
Among combat troops sent to Iraq for the third or fourth time, more than one in four show signs of anxiety, depression or acute stress, according to an official Army survey of soldiers’ mental health.
The stress of long and multiple deployments to Iraq is just one of the concerns being voiced by senior military officers in Washington as Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior Iraq commander, prepares to tell Congress this week that he is not ready to endorse any drawdowns beyond those already scheduled through July.
President Bush has signaled that he will endorse General Petraeus’s recommendation, a decision that will leave close to 140,000 American troops in Iraq at least through the summer. But in a meeting with Mr. Bush late last month in advance of General Petraeus’s testimony, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed deep concern about stress on the force, senior Defense Department and military officials said.
Among the 513,000 active-duty soldiers who have served in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, more than 197,000 have deployed more than once, and more than 53,000 have deployed three or more times, according to a separate set of statistics provided this week by Army personnel officers. The percentage of troops sent back to Iraq for repeat deployments would have to increase in the months ahead.
The Army study of mental health showed that 27 percent of noncommissioned officers — a critically important group — on their third or fourth tour exhibited symptoms commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorders. That figure is far higher than the roughly 12 percent who exhibit those symptoms after one tour and the 18.5 percent who develop the disorders after a second deployment, according to the study, which was conducted by the Army surgeon general’s Mental Health Advisory Team.
The Army and the rest of the service chiefs have endorsed General Petraeus’s recommendations for continued high troop levels in Iraq. But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, and their top deputies also have warned that the war in Iraq should not be permitted to inflict an unacceptable toll on the military as a whole. “Our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it,” Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, said in stark comments delivered to Congress last week. “Lengthy and repeated deployments with insufficient recovery time have placed incredible stress on our soldiers and our families, testing the resolve of our all-volunteer force like never before.”
Beyond the Army, members of the Joint Chiefs have also told the president that the continued troop commitment to Iraq means that there is a significant level of risk should another crisis erupt elsewhere in the world. Any mission could be carried out successfully, the chiefs believe, but the operation would be slower, longer and costlier in lives and equipment than if the armed forces were not so strained.
Under the drawdown already planned, the departure of five combat brigades from Iraq by July should allow the Army to announce that tours will be shortened to 12 months from 15 by the end of summer.
Even so, senior officers warn that time at home must be increased from the current 12 months between combat tours. Otherwise, they say, the ground forces risk an unacceptable level of retirements of sergeants — the key leaders of the small-unit operations — and of experienced captains, who represent the future of the Army’s officer corps.
The mental health study conducted by the Army was carried out in Iraq last October and November, and does not represent a purely scientific sampling of deployed troops, because that is difficult to accomplish in a combat environment, the authors of the study have said. Instead, the study was based on 2,295 anonymous surveys and additional interviews from members of frontline units in combat brigades, and not from those assigned primarily to safer operating bases. Since the study was distributed last month, it has become a central topic of high-level internal discussions within the Army, and its findings have been accepted by Army leaders, senior Pentagon and military officials say.
The survey found that the proportion of soldiers serving in Iraq who had encountered mental health problems was about the same as found in previous studies — about 18 percent of deployed soldiers. But in analyzing the effect of the war on those with previous duty in Iraq, the study found that “soldiers on multiple deployments report low morale, more mental health problems and more stress-related work problems.”
By the time they are on their third or fourth deployments, soldiers “are at particular risk of reporting mental health problems,” the study found.
The range of symptoms reported by soldiers varies widely, from sleeplessness and anxiety to more severe depression and stress. To assist soldiers facing problems, the Army has begun to hire more civilian mental health professionals while directing Army counselors to spend more time with frontline units.
Senior officers at the Pentagon have tried to avoid shrill warnings about the health of the force, cognizant that such comments might embolden potential adversaries, and they continue to hope that troop levels in Iraq can be reduced next year. Still, none deny the level of stress on the force from current deployments.
Admiral Mullen spoke broadly to those concerns last week, saying at a Pentagon news conference that the military would have already assigned forces to missions elsewhere in the world were it not for what he called “the pressure that’s on our forces right now.”
He added that the military would “continue to be there until, should conditions allow, we start to be able to reduce our force levels in Iraq.”
One example of the pressure has come in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon has been unable to meet all of the commanders’ requests for more forces, in particular for several thousand military trainers.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters on Friday that he expected that the United States would be able to add significantly to its deployments in Afghanistan in 2009. But to do that — and to increase time at home for soldiers between deployments — probably would require further reductions in troop levels in Iraq, Pentagon planners said.
Members of the Joint Chiefs also acknowledge that the deployments to Iraq, with the emphasis on counterinsurgency warfare, have left the ground forces no time to train for the full range of missions required to defend American interests.