War Stories: Wartime Stress

The gnashing of teeth you hear at the Pentagon is caused by deep concern over Army morale and suicide numbers that are upside down. The long-awaited Mental Health Advisory Team survey released a few days ago showed that unit morale is low-72 percent called it bad-and that suicide among U.S. troops in Iraq is high--35 percent higher than soldiers stationed elsewhere. And those numbers don't include suicides that happened once soldiers returned home. The report is alarming because it points to a military that's being stretched too thin. But the Army should also accept that its plan to treat battle stress isn't working.

Officially, the Army prefers to brush aside the new survey results. Pentagon spinners complain that the media has made a mountain out of a molehill on the issue of suicides and morale. They say the suicide rate is still below that of the general U.S. population. But a candid Army manpower officer calls that argument specious. "We do screen people so you do expect that we'd be better on morale and behavior," he told me after the survey came out.

Why are these numbers so bad? The incidence of low morale and high suicides reflects in part a slippage in quality control. According to Army Col. (Ret.) Jim Martin, associate professor of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, only 85 percent of soldiers have their high school degree (or equivalent), compared with 95 percent as recently as the mid-1990s. In other words, the behavioral bar has been lowered in order to increase recruitment demands. And those demands may only intensify. For now, the Army reports that it doesn't have a retention crisis. But that's because of a mechanism called "stop-loss," which is basically a freeze on all retirements (or "silent draft," in the words of the manpower officer). Until stop-loss is lifted, we won't get an accurate look at the manpower picture.

Future recruiting needs to better select who is fit to handle the rigors of war. Researchers recently discovered, for instance, that men who slide quickly into the Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep are more predisposed to suffer Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. There are obvious socio-economic indicators for depression: Most suicides in Iraq involved a young, white enlisted (i.e., non officer) guy who had money or family problems. In other words, these guys were already having trouble before they headed off to Iraq. Things only got worse once they began laboring for 24-year-old platoon sergeants ill-equipped to notice suicidal tendencies and once they placed their trust in a general officer leadership that misled them on their deployment time. The heartbreak was devastating among Third Infantry Division soldiers who had camped in the Kuwaiti desert for nearly a year before charging into the heart of Iraq. They'd been told that the sooner they reached Baghdad, the sooner they'd be bound for home. Instead, their tours were extended nearly a year. After that, they looked like dead men walking.

The Pentagon did have a plan to handle psych injuries in Iraq: roving Combat Stress Control teams. It was a great idea. But the teams failed in part because there was no senior mental health leader in Iraq (even though that was one of the primary recommendations Army psychologists made after the first Gulf war). Without a general officer in charge of mental health in Iraq, the combat stress teams were overlooked. Some didn't even have proper radios. "These kinds of units are always last on the list of what's needed" when the war machine is lined up for battle, Dr. Jim Martin says.

More importantly, soldiers didn't fully trust the stress teams. They weren't embedded with every unit, so soldiers didn't get a chance to bond with the psychologists. Trust needs to form before one service member will trust another with his demons. This is something that the Marine Corps already figured out. Operation Iraqi Freedom saw the debut of the Corps' remedy for combat stress, a program called Operational Stress Control and Readiness, better known as OSCAR. Where the Army's mental health specialists roamed the battlefield to meet soldiers for the first time, OSCAR teams are as integral to larger units as combat engineers. That is, OSCAR teams are part of the unit back home in garrison. They get to know their brothers. Much as it would hate admitting it, the Army could learn a thing or two from their rivals in the Marine Corps.