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Morale has fallen among soldiers in Afghanistan, where troops are seeing record violence in the 8-year-old war, while those in Iraq show much improved mental health amid much lower violence, the Army said Friday.
It was the first time since 2004 that soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase. Self-inflicted deaths in Afghanistan were on track to go up this year.
Though findings of two new battlefield surveys are similar in several ways to the last ones taken in 2007, they come at a time of intense scrutiny on Afghanistan as President Barack Obama struggles to craft a new war strategy and planned troop buildup. There is also new focus on the mental health of the force since a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last week in which an Army psychiatrist is charged.
Both surveys showed that soldiers on their third or fourth tours of duty had lower morale and more mental health problems than those with fewer deployments. And an increasing number of troops are having problems with their marriages.
The new survey on Afghanistan found instances of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at about the same as they were in 2007 but double 2005’s cases. That was 21.4 percent in 2009, 23.4 percent in 2007 and 10.4 percent in 2005.
That compares to a lower 13.3 percent in Iraq, down from 18.8 percent in 2007 and 22 percent in 2006. (Surveys have been done every year in Iraq, but were only done during three years in Afghanistan.)
The Afghan report also found a shortage of mental health workers to help soldiers who needed it, partly because of the buildup Obama started this year with the dispatch of more than 20,000 extra troops.
Efforts to get more health workers to Afghanistan were made a little harder by last week’s shooting. The psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder was slated to go to Afghanistan. Some of the dead and wounded also were to have deployed there to bolster psychological services for soldiers.
Still, officials told a Pentagon press conference that they expect to meet their goal next month of having one mental health worker for every 700 troops — workers that include psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and so on. There were 43 in Afghanistan at the time of the survey, while 103 were deemed needed; and since the survey, there has been what Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker on Friday called an aggressive push to send the rest.
The new Afghanistan survey found that individual soldier morale was about the same as previous studies, but that unit morale rates were significantly lower.
For instance, when asked about their own morale, 17.6 percent rated it high or very high, down from 23 percent in 2005. When asked about their unit, only 5.7 percent gave the two highest ratings, a decrease from 10.2 percent in 2007 and 10.5 percent in 2005.
The findings come from surveys and interviews with troops and mental health workers at the wars.
In Iraq, some 2,400 soldiers in randomly selected platoons filled out surveys from December 2008 through March 2009, and a mental health assessment team went to the warfront for a month starting in late February to analyze the results and hold interviews and focus groups. In Afghanistan, more than 1,500 troops in more than 50 platoons filled out the surveys from April to June, and the assessment team went through the same process from May through June.
It’s the sixth such survey, a program that was groundbreaking when started in 2003 in that it was the biggest effort ever made to measure the health of troops — and the services they receive — right at the warfront in the middle of a military campaign.
The survey was different from previous ones in that it sampled two types of platoons. Some were maneuver units that war-fighting groups engaged in combat-related tasks and others were support units such as aviation, engineering and medical elements less likely to have as much direct exposure to violence.
Other findings of the Afghanistan survey included:
“Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face stress from multiple deployments into combat but report being more prepared for the stresses of deployments,” Schoomaker said.
Associated Press writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.
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Army Medical Department: http://www.armymedicine.army.mil