Editorial Column: Easing the Strain on Military Minds

The Virginian Pilot

April 14, 2008 – It’s easy to identify some of the U.S. veterans permanently injured in the Iraq war. The sign could be a missing limb, disfigured skin, scars that resemble zippers, wheelchairs they must use.

Less simple is identifying who carries mental disorders from the war, which has now stretched past five long years. Those maladies may crop up immediately or take years to manifest themselves. In any case, they can rarely be seen at a glance.

And with each additional tour on the battlefield, more and more soldiers descend into a state of madness. They confront thoughts and emotions and impulses they don’t understand and can feel powerless to fight. The risk of suicide will increase.

With America’s armed forces stretched thin from the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, military leaders are warning of the serious toll of repeated deployments.

The New York Times noted this past week that among combat troops sent to Iraq at least three times, more than a quarter “show signs of anxiety, depression or acute stress, according to an official Army survey of soldiers’ mental health.” Army personnel officers said that of the 513,000 active-duty soldiers who have served in Iraq since 2003, more than 53,000 have deployed at least three times.

The study indicates another, harder-to-calculate cost of the Iraq war. Besides the 4,000-plus deaths and billions of dollars expended, soldiers are returning broken in mind, as well as body. Marriages and families are failing under the strain.

These soldiers may need medical and psychiatric care for the rest of their lives. Americans must tend to those wounds.

The Times’ report occurred the same week that Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, addressed Congress about the status of the war. He recommended the United States discontinue pulling troops from the country in July, leaving about 140,000 U.S. forces there. The president endorsed the strategy.

The general also recommended reducing tours of duty from 15 months to 12, a positive nugget of news in a fairly gloomy address.

The general’s comments provide indirect support for a campaign by Virginia’s junior senator and for its return to the national stage.

Democrat Jim Webb waged a highly publicized fight last year to pass “dwell time” legislation. The bill would have granted individual soldiers at least as much time at home as they spend on deployment. Republicans in the Senate used procedural moves to prevent passage last year.

Congress should revisit the issue. The Army report indicates our troops need the break from the battlefield not just for their physical well-being, but for their sanity.

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