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Long tours in Iraq may be a minefield for mental health

Times Staff Writer

Fewer than half of U.S. soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq would report a fellow service member for mistreating an Iraqi civilian, and about 10% of those surveyed admitted they had abused noncombatants or damaged their property, according to a Pentagon report released Friday that examined battlefield ethics.

The report said that misconduct occurred more frequently as stress levels increased, and that longer wartime deployments could erode morale and negatively affect mental health.

Soldiers who screened positive for mental health problems, for example, were twice as likely to hit or kick a noncombatant as those who screened negative.

The Pentagon report was based on a mental health survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 Marines in Iraq.

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The report found that soldiers -- whose tours were about twice as long as Marines’ -- had lower morale, more marital problems and higher rates of mental health disorders.

The military decided last month to extend Army tours by 90 days.

The report also found that soldiers on repeat tours were more likely to suffer acute stress, and that mental health problems correlated with higher rates of battlefield misconduct.

“The team found that soldiers with high levels of anger, who experienced high levels of combat, or who screened positive for a mental health symptom were nearly twice as likely to mistreat noncombatants as those who reported low levels of anger,” said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the acting Army surgeon general.

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The Army in particular has struggled with deployment lengths throughout the Iraq war, ordering extensions and speeding deployments to sustain troop levels. The 90-day extension that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered last month, for active-duty Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan, stretches the typical tour to 15 months. The extension will allow the current buildup to continue without forcing returning units to forgo rest and retraining periods.

Experts said the report raised concern about the possibility of more incidents like the November 2005 massacre of civilians at Haditha or the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib as tours lengthened.

“What it says to me is we should get out of Iraq before a real disaster happens for us,” said Cindy Williams, a security-studies researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is an expert on military personnel policies. “Iraq is already in chaos, but for us to stay there and continue to wreck our Army over this is a big mistake.”

The Pentagon mental health survey, the fourth since the war started, is the first to include questions about battlefield ethics and the treatment of Iraqi civilians. Current military strategy emphasizes a need to make the Iraqi populace feel safe.

Fewer than half of the service members questioned agreed with the statement “All noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Forty-four percent of Marines and 41% of soldiers said torture should be allowed if it would save the life of a fellow service member. Army Field Manual rules prohibit physical contact during questioning.

At a news conference to discuss the report, Pollock urged that the responses about the use of torture be viewed in the context of the war.

“These men and women have been seeing their friends injured, and I think that having that thought is normal,” Pollock said. “But what it speaks to is the leadership that the military is providing, because they’re not acting on those thoughts. They’re not torturing the people.”

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Williams said she worried that incidents of abusing Iraqis might become more frequent if the tours of duty were not shortened, because soldiers were being “stretched to the snapping point.”

“What these numbers are telling us is that the longer a person stays, the more likely he or she is to exhibit signs of mental stress,” Williams said. “The more an individual is under acute stress, the more likely an individual is to carry out acts that will shame the country.”

Pollock acknowledged that the longer tours would increase stress. But in the wake of the report, she said, the military is doing more to train leaders to support troops and reduce stress. She suggested the real solution was a larger Army.

“The Army is spread very thin,” she said, “and we need it to be a larger force for the number of missions that we were being asked to address for our nation.”

The report recommends that after a deployment, soldiers be given 18 to 36 months at their home station before being sent abroad again. The demand for soldiers in Iraq, however, has meant that few combat units are allowed to remain home for more than a year. Pollock acknowledged that for now the Army could not give soldiers that much time at home.

“Ideally, the war would be over; wars around the world would stop,” Pollock said. “But we serve as an instrument of the nation, and when the nation calls, we will serve.”

The report also contained data about suicides. Whereas the average suicide rate for the Army as a whole is 11.6 per year for every 100,000 soldiers -- lower than that for male civilians in a comparable age group -- the rate is 16.1 per 100,000 for soldiers serving in Iraq. Military officials said the report found that the suicide prevention efforts being carried out in Iraq were not designed for a war zone.

The report drew distinctions between soldiers and Marines who spent most of their time working on a base, and those who spent the bulk of their time on combat patrols. The report found that 28% of those involved in high levels of combat experienced acute stress, compared with 6% involved in low levels of combat.

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Previous surveys had shown little difference in stress between soldiers who had served multiple tours and those on their first deployment. But the new report showed that 27% of soldiers who had been on multiple tours experienced mental health problems, compared with 17% who were serving in Iraq for the first time.

Michael J. O’Rourke, assistant director of healthcare policy for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the military should move to shorter tours, even if that increased the frequency of tours.

“The tip of the spear is very sharp, and the more you use it the duller it gets,” he said. “Repetitive, constant vigilance has a psychological impact. Many individuals come back with physical scars, and many come back with psychological scars.”

The survey was conducted Aug. 28 to Oct. 3. The report was completed in November 2006, months before the decision to extend Army tours.

A Pentagon spokesman attributed the delay in the study’s release to the time it took to brief senior leaders on results. The previous version of the report took longer to release.

The full report can be found at https://www.medicine.army.mil/news/mhat/mhat_iv/mhat-iv.cfm.

julian.barnes@latimes.com


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