Mental Health Survey Shows Troops Need More Time at Home
The Pentagon this week released its fourth report on the mental health of troops serving overseas. What emerges from the latest Mental Health Advisory Team survey, the fourth in a series of such studies since 2003, is a troubling picture of troops who are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety and depression with each successive deployment. "We looked under every rockand what they found wasn't always easy to look at," said Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. The Pentagon is now examining "how we can do better," he said. "There are ways we can do better."
What has become abundantly clear, say military officials, is that the longer tours of duty for soldiers (who must now serve 15 months in Iraq) and shorter "dwell times" at home with families are taking a significant toll on soldiers and marines (who are in charge of security in the volatile Anbar province and were included in the survey for the first time).
"We know that the longer a soldier is deployed, the more likely they are to have a mental health issue," said Col. Carl Castro, who worked on the Pentagon's study. "Of course, we're very, very concerned about it."
That's in large part because of the clear link that the study found between mental health and unethical behavior. In other words, soldiers who screened positive for a mental health problemsuch as anxiety, depression, or acute stresswere twice as likely to engage in unethical behavior compared with soldiers who did not screen positive. Military officials note that soldiers and marines are far more likely to have unethical thoughts than act on them. However, the study found, "the relationship between mental health and unethical behavior holds even when controlling for anger."
The report, which included anonymous surveys of 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines in Iraq, also included some disturbing findings in the military's first-ever study of battlefield ethics. The results: Approximately 10 percent of soldiers reported mistreating (defined as hitting or kicking) or unnecessarily damaging the property of noncombatants. Fewer than half of troops surveyed said that they would report a fellow unit member for "injuring or killing an innocent noncombatant."
The military, in keeping with the study's recommendations, has said that it will provide more "scenario-based battlefield ethics training." Nearly one third of troops said that they had "encountered ethical situations in Iraq in which I did not know how to respond." The Pentagon will also revise its suicide prevention training, said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army's acting surgeon general of the Army. She said that suicide rates among the deployed soldiers were higher than average and that current suicide prevention training is "not designed for combat situations."
In order to regroup mentally, the study concluded, troops are in need of more time home with their families between deploymentsideally 18 to 36 months. Marital concerns, too, among troops were higher than in previous surveys, said Pollock, and related to the current length of deployments.
But troops are not likely to get the minimum recommended time between deploymentsa year and a halfanytime soon. Recent "dwell times" for some units has been as little as seven months between yearlong tours. And while current deployments, now 15 months for Army soldiers, are designed with the goal of a one-year rest after a tour in Iraq, with training that soldiers must undergo before deploying again, a one-year stay at home is often considerably less.