US troops facing extended deployments amid the danger, heat, and uncertainty of an Iraq occupation are suffering from low morale that has in some cases hit "rock bottom."
Even as President Bush speaks of a "massive and long-term" undertaking in rebuilding Iraq, that effort, as well as the high tempo of US military operations around the globe, is taking its toll on individual troops.
Some frustrated troops stationed in Iraq are writing letters to representatives in Congress to request their units be repatriated. "Most soldiers would empty their bank accounts just for a plane ticket home," said one recent Congressional letter written by an Army soldier now based in Iraq. The soldier requested anonymity.
In some units, there has been an increase in letters from the Red Cross stating soldiers are needed at home, as well as daily instances of female troops being sent home due to pregnancy.
"Make no mistake, the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom," said another soldier, an officer from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq.
Such open grumbling among troops comes as US commanders reevaluate the size and composition of the US-led coalition force needed to occupy Iraq. US Central Command, which is leading the occupation, is expected by mid-July to send a proposal to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on how many and what kind of troops are required, as well as on the rotation of forces there.
The rethink about troop levels comes as senior military leaders voice concern that multiple deployments around the world are already taxing the endurance of US forces, the Army in particular. Some 370,000 soldiers are now deployed overseas from an Army active-duty, guard, and reserve force of just over 1 million people, according to Army figures.
Experts warn that long, frequent deployments could lead to a rash of departures from the military. "Hordes of active-duty troops and reservists may soon leave the service rather than subject themselves to a life continually on the road," writes Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution here.
A major Army study is now under way to examine the impact of this high pace of operations on the mental health of soldiers and families. "The cumulative effect of these work hours and deployment and training are big issues, and soldiers are concerned about it," says Col. Charles Hoge, who is leading the survey of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers for the Walter Reed Institute of Army Research.
Concern over stressed troops is not new. In the late 1990s, a shrinking of military manpower combined with a rise in overseas missions prompted Congress to call for sharp pay increases for troops deployed over a certain number of days.
"But then came September 11 and the operational tempo went off the charts" and the Congressional plan was suspended, according to Ed Bruner, an expert on ground forces at the Congressional Research Service here.
Despite Pentagon statements before the war that the goal of US forces was to "liberate, not occupy" Iraq, Secretary Rumsfeld warned last week that the war against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere "will not be over any time soon."
Currently, there are some 230,000 US troops serving in and around Iraq, including nearly 150,000 US troops inside Iraq and 12,000 from Britain and other countries. According to the Pentagon, the number of foreign troops is expected to rise to 20,000 by September. Fresh foreign troops began flowing into Iraq this month, part of two multinational forces led by Poland and Britain. A third multinational force is also under consideration.
A crucial factor in determining troop levels are the daily attacks that have killed more than 30 US and British servicemen in Iraq since Mr. Bush declared on May 1 that major combat operations had ended.
The unexpected degree of resistance led the Pentagon to increase US ground troops in Iraq to mount a series of ongoing raids aimed at confiscating weapons and capturing opposition forces.
As new US troops flowed into Iraq, others already in the region for several months, such as the 20,000-strong 3rd Infantry Division were retained in Iraq.
"Faced with continued resistance, Department of Defense now plans to keep a larger force in Iraq than anticipated for a period of time," Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, explained in a statement to families a month ago. "I appreciate the turmoil and stress that a continued deployment has caused," he added.
The open-ended deployments in Iraq are lowering morale among some ground troops, who say constantly shifting time tables are reducing confidence in their leadership. "The way we have been treated and the continuous lies told to our families back home has devastated us all," a soldier in Iraq wrote in a letter to Congress.
Security threats, heat, harsh living conditions, and, for some soldiers, waiting and boredom have gradually eroded spirits. An estimated 9,000 troops from the 3rd Infantry Division - most deployed for at least six months and some for more than a year - have been waiting for several weeks, without a mission, to return to the United States, officers say.
In one Army unit, an officer described the mentality of troops. "They vent to anyone who will listen. They write letters, they cry, they yell. Many of them walk around looking visibly tired and depressed.... We feel like pawns in a game that we have no voice [in]."