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.
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Recently, reports of suicides by active-duty soldiers and newly returned veterans have alarmed military commanders enough to start “spiritual resilience” campuses at places like Fort Hood, in Texas. The Pentagon has also established a new suicide hot line with an online chat option. Moreover, military officials report that all VA hospital patients are now screened for PTSD and are seen by professionals within two weeks of a diagnosis.Skip to next paragraph
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But the Army has also struggled to increase the time between deployments as the US mounts a new offensive in Afghanistan. Relatively calm Iraq, too, could flare back up, putting renewed stress on the volunteer force.
The VA study confirms what many mental health professionals have been warning of for years: the cumulative effects of a nation relying on a relatively few volunteers to fight what’s now the longest-lasting war in modern US history fought without a draft. Currently, 38 percent of the fighting force has seen two deployments and 10 percent has seen three or more.
Difficulties increase with each deployment
"The difficulties with combat stresses increase with each deployment, and now we have people that have been there five, six times and we're going to be sending them back again," Dr. Judith Broder, a psychiatrist who runs the Soldiers Project, a nonprofit group that helps veterans, told the Whittier (Calif.) Daily News recently. "I don't think we're ready."
The VA study says another problem is that soldiers known by the Pentagon to be struggling mentally and physically are too often being redeployed. The Pentagon has reported that 43,000 medically unfit soldiers were pressed into service between 2003 and 2008, a practice which the Office of the Army Surgeon General warns can have adverse effects on the ability of soldiers to carry out their duties.
“Screening programs and mobilization trainings remain imperfect mechanisms for identifying and insuring treatment of psychologically impaired soldiers,” Ms. Kline writes. “It is important, therefore, for military and veteran authorities to develop mechanisms for the truly confidential and accessible … treatment of mental and behavioral health problems … and to examine existing policies regarding multiple deployments of troops.…”
One available but politically unpopular solution to the grinding stress on the volunteer force is the draft, Mr. Korb says. The mandatory US Selective Service system currently has 5 million able-bodied young Americans who could be called up, he notes.
The other option is to simply endure what’s being played out now, he says.
“People are being sent back that don’t have the required time home, and that’s why we need to face up to this,” he says. “These are battle-hardened guys, no doubt about it, but you do have this other aspect [of psychological trauma for some soldiers] and it’s going to be dogging them for years.”
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