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Pentagon plays catch-up as toll of repeat combat duty rises

A Department of Veterans Affairs study reports a three-fold increase in depression and post-traumatic stress after repeat combat duty, raising questions about the Pentagon’s ability to keep soldiers with combat-related psychological problems away from the front.

By Staff writer / December 17, 2009

A United States marine from the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines takes part in an operation in the Garmsir district of the volatile Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. US service members with multiple combat deployments are more likely to experience psychological problems than those with one, a new study shows.

Kevin Frayer/AP

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Emotional pain, depression, and angst among US soldiers seeing multiple deployments in war zones are much more common than the Pentagon has reported, a new Department of Veterans Affairs survey says.

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Soldiers facing multiple deployments, moreover, are at least three times more likely to anonymously report problems of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than are those with a single deployment, according to the study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

Coming as 30,000 more troops are being sent to Afghanistan, the findings in a study of nearly 3,000 New Jersey National Guardsmen are likely to spur additional debate over military and societal response to America’s heavy dependence on volunteer soldiers for repeated deployments in two wars.

The findings also raise questions about the military’s ability – and willingness – to properly screen soldiers for combat-related problems that could limit their effectiveness in war zones, writes Anna Kline, lead author of the VA study.

“The Pentagon has tried to downplay these problems, and now it’s a moral and strategic outrage that we’ve got on our hands,” says Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “They’re in essence playing catch-up.”

Prescription drug abuse a related problem

Still, the Pentagon does not have its head in the sand about the effects of turnstile deployments on both enlisted men and National Guard troops. A study of 28,000 troops released by the Pentagon on Wednesday acknowledged that 20 percent had abused prescription drugs, mostly painkillers, and that the number of troops experiencing PTSD has gone from 9 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2008.

The new VA study, however, says that up to 30 percent of soldiers seeing multiple deployments have psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress.

The study points out a potentially key caveat: National Guard troops may not be as well equipped to handle multiple deployments as are enlisted troops.

Another issue is the “buck up, soldier” attitude in the Army and Marine Corps. The VA survey finds that 53 percent of those who anonymously reported deployment-related problems did not let the Army know, fearing “mental health stigma” from officers and fellow soldiers. Moreover, 90 percent of soldiers who screened positive for alcohol dependence reported receiving no treatment in the past 12 months.

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