Reports Find Improvements, Challenges to Morale
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2009 The number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq reporting psychological problems is at its lowest since 2004, while morale among military units in Afghanistan has fallen significantly over the past two years, according to Army reports released today.
The two reports broadly find improved mental health conditions in Iraq, while morale and other indicative statistics concerning soldiers in Afghanistan were flat or showed signs of decline since similar data was compiled in 2007.
A top Army priority for improving conditions for the 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is to raise the number of mental health providers from the current 43 to roughly 103, Army officials said today in a roundtable discussion at the Pentagon. About 230 mental health practitioners serve the 120,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
About 12 percent of the roughly 2,500 U.S. soldiers surveyed in Iraq reported having mental health problems such as acute stress, depression and anxiety – which Army health officials say is significantly lower than every year of the six-year conflict except 2004. The study finds soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase for the first time since 2004, but suggests the war has had a negative impact on military families.
“These trends showed some positive changes, such as a greater percentage of soldiers reporting high or very high morale,” said Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general and commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command. “But they also showed the degree to which the conflict has taken its toll on families, with more soldiers reporting potential plans to separate or divorce, and fewer reporting good marriages.”
The data for the Iraq study, compiled by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team, is based on surveys completed between December 2008 and March 2009. The team’s report on Afghanistan is based on surveys filled out between April and June 2009 by about 1,550 deployed soldiers.
In both theaters of operation, soldiers continued to face stress resulting from multiple deployments, but report feeling more prepared for the stress.
“Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face stress from multiple deployments into combat, but report being more prepared for the stresses of deployment,” Schoomaker said.
In Afghanistan, soldiers reported higher combat exposure and lower unit morale compared to previous years. About 14 percent of combat soldiers surveyed met the criteria for behavioral health problems, a rate similar to that found in a 2007 report.
Additional findings in the Iraq report include:
-- Combat exposure levels were lower than every year except 2004.
-- Positive leadership was a key factor in resilient platoons.
-- Reports of marital problems have increased each year, with more than 16 percent reporting plans to separate or divorce.
-- Soldiers in “maneuver,” or combat, units reported more barriers to care and higher stigma associated with seeking mental health care compared to the last assessment, while those in support or sustainment units reported lower barriers to care and lower stigma attached to seeking care.
Other findings of the Afghanistan survey included:
-- Junior enlisted soldiers reported significantly more marital problems than noncommissioned officers, stating an intention to seek divorce or suspecting their spouses of infidelity back home.
-- 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.
-- Troops in their third or fourth deployment reported significantly more acute stress and other psychological problems, and married soldiers among them reported significantly more marital problems compared to soldiers on their first or second deployment.