Sgt. Robert Bales and multiple tours of duty: How many is too many?
Twenty percent of active-duty Army troops are on at least their third tour of duty to a war zone. Sgt. Robert Bales, suspected of slaying 17 Afghan civilians, was one. Here's what's known about the dangers of repeated deployments.
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That's because in some cases the burdens of repeated deployments have been greater than those troops had endured in World War II, the study warns. The average infantryman in the South Pacific “saw about 40 days of combat in four years” in contrast to a “persistently high” level of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has offered “very few opportunities for individuals to rest, either physically or mentally.”Skip to next paragraph
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The Pentagon has grappled with just how many deployments is too many. A 2010 study known as the “Red Book” discovered in those who had completed multiple tours “a growing high-risk population of soldiers engaging in criminal and high-risk behavior with increasingly more severe outcomes including violent crime.”
Precursors of this behavior, the study noted, were “combat-related wounds, injuries and illnesses; repetitive and lengthy separations, and broader economic conditions.” Bales’s lawyer might point out that his client struggled with all three.
Many troops wrestle with the strains of repeated trips to war zones. Tech Sgt. Bob Roberts has completed 15 deployments in 17 years since joining the Air Force’s elite pararescuers, who were most recently serving as a quick-reaction force for the final troops pulling out of Iraq. During the past four years, Roberts estimates he has been away from home more than 300 days a year. A former professional snowboarder, Roberts says the key to doing the job he loves is learning how “to keep your personal freakout at bay” amid violent chaos that sometimes requires “picking up pieces of people.”
He is quick to acknowledge that war has taken its toll. Roberts is on his fourth marriage. “I’ve chosen this over relationships – over everything else,” he says. The majority of pararescuers he began serving with, he adds, have turned violence inward and are now either “in jail, have a bullet in their head, or are drug abusers.”
Wary of painting a picture of every soldier who returns from war as wrestling with deep pathology, military officials stress that the majority of those who have served multiple tours have done so without committing crimes against civilians.
But they grapple with the simple soldierly reality that going into battle and all it entails necessarily cultivates aggressive behavior. What troops “have been through in the past 10 years requires more attention, more understanding – and it requires ways to channel that energy that we’ve encouraged them to have and bring to the fight – so that when they come back to the States, they don’t self-destruct,” says Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (OSC-I).
Some try to create ad-hoc therapies. Lt. Col. Jonathan Downing, chief of doctrine and education at the OSC-I, witnessed the risk-taking behaviors that troops in his 800-person squadron would engage in upon their return from war. “We saw a lot of guys coming home, getting on sports bikes, and going crazy,” he says.
He and his colleagues decided to pay for motorcycle track days for those who seemed to “need that adrenaline” they had become accustomed to in combat. Risk-taking is “obviously a legitimate concern,” Downing says, “so we’re trying to use our influence to channel it.”
Just how the US military has chosen to cope with its war-sick has varied throughout history. Gen. George Patton, in one of the more notorious leadership moments of World War II, felt compelled to slap a crying 18-year-old soldier in a field hospital for being a “coward.”
Less remembered is the general outpouring of compassion that act prompted. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower sent a letter of reprimand to Patton, who had hit crying soldiers on more than one occasion, writes F. Don Nidiffer and Spencer Leach in a 2010 article published in Developments in Mental Health Law.