Army morale down in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON It was the first time since 2004 that soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase. Self-inflicted deaths in Afghanistan were on track to go up this year. Though findings of two new battlefield surveys are similar in several ways to the last ones taken in 2007, they come at a time of intense scrutiny on Afghanistan as President Barack Obama struggles to craft a new war strategy and planned troop buildup.

There is also new focus on the mental health of the force since a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last week in which an Army psychiatrist is charged. Both surveys showed that soldiers on their third or fourth tours of duty had lower morale and more mental health problems than those with fewer deployments. And an increasing number of troops are having problems with their marriages.

The new survey on Afghanistan found instances of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at about the same as they were in 2007 but double 2005's cases. That was 21.4 percent in 2009, 23.4 percent in 2007 and 10.4 percent in 2005. That compares to a lower 13.3 percent in Iraq, down from 18.8 percent in 2007 and 22 percent in 2006. (Surveys have been done every year in Iraq, but were only done during three years in Afghanistan.)

The Afghan report also found a shortage of mental health workers to help soldiers who needed it, partly because of the buildup Obama started this year with the dispatch of more than 20,000 extra troops. Efforts to get more health workers to Afghanistan were made a little harder by last week's shooting. The psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder was slated to go to Afghanistan.

Some of the dead and wounded also were to deploy there to bolster psychological services for soldiers. Still, officials told a Pentagon press conference that they expect to meet their goal next month of having one mental health worker for every 700 troops -- workers that include psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and so on.

There were 43 in Afghanistan at the time of the survey, while 103 were deemed needed; and since the survey, there has been what Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker on Friday called an aggressive push to send the rest.

The new Afghanistan survey found that individual soldier morale was about the same as previous studies, but that unit morale rates were significantly lower. For instance, when asked about their own morale, 17.6 percent rated it high or very high, down from 15.4 percent in 2007 and 23 percent in 2005. When asked about their unit, only 5.7 percent gave the two highest ratings, a decrease from 10.2 percent in 2007 and 10.5 percent in 2005.

The findings come from surveys and interviews with troops and mental health workers at the wars.

In Iraq, some 2,400 soldiers in randomly selected platoons filled out surveys from December 2008 through March 2009 and a mental health assessment team went to the warfront for a month starting in late February to analyze the results and hold interviews and focus groups. In Afghanistan, more than 1,500 troops in more than 50 platoons filled out the surveys from April to June, and the assessment team when through the same process from May through June.

It's the sixth such survey, a program that was groundbreaking when started in 2003 in that it was the biggest effort ever made to measure the health of troops -- and the services they receive -- right at the warfront in the middle of a military campaign. The survey was different from previous ones in that it sampled two types of platoons. Some were maneuver units that warfighting groups engaged in combat-related tasks and others were support units such as aviation, engineering and medical elements less likely to have as much direct exposure to violence.

Junior enlisted soldiers reported significantly more marital problems than noncommissioned officers, stating they intended to get a divorce or that they suspected their spouses back home of infidelity. Exposure to combat, long recognized as a strong factor in mental health problems, was significantly higher this year than rates in 2005 and similar to rates in 2007 for the combat units.

Combat units reported significantly lower unit morale in the last six months of their tours of duty, more evidence of the wearing affect of long deployments. Troops in their third or fourth deployment reported significantly more acute stress and other psychological problems, and among those married, reported significantly more marital problems compared to soldiers on their first or second deployment.

Troops who spent two to four hours daily playing video games or surfing the Internet as a way to cope helped lower their psychological problems, but spending time beyond that -- three to four hours -- had the opposite effect. Those who exercised or did other physical training decreased their mental problems, regardless of the time spent.

Troops reported more and better training in suicide prevention and other mental health programs that the Army has been increasing over recent years in an unprecedented effort to focus on the force's mental health.

"Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face stress from multiple deployments into combat but report being more prepared for the stresses of deployments," Schoomaker said.

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