Stress levels of soldiers in Iraq linked to cases of misconduct

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Fewer than half of U.S. soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq would report a fellow service member for mistreating an Iraqi civilian, and about 10 percent of those surveyed admitted that they had abused noncombatants or damaged their property, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday that examined battlefield ethics.

The report disclosed that misconduct occurred more frequently as stress levels increased and that longer wartime deployments can erode morale and negatively affect mental health. For example, soldiers who screened positive for mental health problems were twice as likely to hit or kick a noncombatant.

The Pentagon report, based on a mental health survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 Marines in Iraq, raises questions about the military's decision last month to extend Army tours by 90 days.

The report found that soldiers - whose tours last twice as long as Marines' - have lower morale, more marital problems and higher rates of mental health disorders. The report also found that soldiers on repeat tours of duty were more likely to suffer from acute stress and that the mental health problems lead to battlefield misconduct.

"The team found that soldiers with high levels of anger, who experienced high levels of combat, or who screened positive for a mental health symptom, were nearly twice as likely to mistreat noncombatants as those who reported low levels of anger," said Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, the acting Army surgeon general.

The Army in particular has struggled with deployment lengths throughout the Iraq war, ordering extensions and speeding deployments to sustain troop levels. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered 90-day extensions for active-duty Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan, stretching the typical tour to 15 months. The extension will allow the current buildup to continue without forcing returning units to forgo rest and retraining periods.

But, experts said, the new findings raised concern about the possibility of more incidents such as the November 2005 massacre of civilians at Haditha or the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib as tours grow longer to accommodate the current buildup in forces.

"What it says to me is we should get out of Iraq before a real disaster happens for us," said Cindy Williams, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on military personnel policies. "Iraq is already in chaos, but for us to stay there and continue to wreck our Army over this is a big mistake."

The Pentagon mental health survey, the fourth since the war started, is the first to include questions about battlefield ethics and the treatment of Iraqi civilians.

Although the current military strategy emphasizes the need to make the Iraqi populace feel safe, fewer than half of the service members questioned said that all noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

The survey also showed that 44 percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said harsh interrogation methods, including torture, should be allowed to save the life of a fellow service member. Army Field Manual rules prohibit physical contact during questioning.

Pollock acknowledged that the longer tours would increase stress. But, she said, the military was doing more to train leaders to support troops and reduce stress. She suggested the real solution to the problem was a larger Army.

"The Army is spread very thin," she said, "and we need it to be a larger force for the number of missions that we were being asked to address for our nation."

The report recommends that after a deployment, soldiers be given between 18 months and 36 months at their home station before being sent overseas again. The demand for soldiers in Iraq, however, has meant that few combat units are allowed to remain home for more than a year. Pollock acknowledged that, for now, there was no possibility the Army could give soldiers that much time at home.

The new report also contained some troubling data about suicides. The average suicide rate for the Army as a whole is 11.6 per year for every 100,000 soldiers, lower than that for male civilians in a comparable age group. For soldiers serving in Iraq, however, the rate is 16.1. Military officials said the report found that the suicide prevention efforts being carried out in Iraq were not designed for a war zone.

The report drew distinctions between soldiers and Marines who spent most of their time working on a base, and those who spent the bulk of their time on combat patrols. The report found that 28 percent of those involved in high levels of combat experienced acute stress, compared with just 6 percent involved in low levels of combat.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad