WASHINGTON - Top Army officers are concerned that a growing number of soldiers are medically unfit to deploy to war, a development that could affect President Barack Obama's campaign vow to increase U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan.
At least 20,000 Army soldiers are on "nondeployable" status, a number that has grown by several thousand in the past six months, the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, told reporters yesterday.
Many have muscle or bone injuries from carrying heavy loads in combat, Chiarelli said.
It is common for infantry soldiers and Marines to carry combat loads of more than 100 pounds for extended periods over rough terrain, especially in Afghanistan.
"You can't hump a rucksack at 8,000 feet for 15 months and not have an effect. The body can't take that," said Chiarelli, a four-star general who commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq and all ground forces there.
The need for reinforcements in Afghanistan was a key issue yesterday as Obama held his first Oval Office war council with top military advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.
On Obama's desk is an urgent request from Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, to roughly double U.S. forces there, from 32,000 to nearly 60,000, over the next 12 to 18 months. The increase would involve three added combat brigades, an aviation brigade, military police, combat engineers, and specialists in civil affairs, intelligence, combat medicine and logistics.
NATO allies have an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
McKiernan took part in yesterday's White House session by secure video link, as did Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's national security adviser, also attended, White House officials said.
McKiernan has said he needs more troops to carry out a new Afghan strategy that is emerging from reviews conducted over the past few weeks by military commanders and Pentagon and White House officials.
The plan involves intensifying counterinsurgency operations while accelerating the training of Afghan police.
But it is a manpower-intensive strategy, and the rising number of injured soldiers will complicate the Army's efforts to find enough fresh troops.
There are now 21,900 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and 212,400 in Iraq, out of a total force of about 545,000, the Army reported last month. About 290,000 soldiers are either returning from deployments or are engaged in intense predeployment training.
The pace of deployments means that some units are being ordered back into combat barely a year after returning from 15-month combat tours, Chiarelli said.
"We are hoping to get some relief from [reducing troop numbers in] Iraq before putting additional forces into Afghanistan," Chiarelli said.
Combat loads for infantrymen have been slowly increasing for years, with the addition of body armor that can weigh more than 30 pounds and gear such as the M-4 carbine, which is lighter than the once-standard M-16 rifle but with five ammunition magazines weighs about 12 pounds.
Other commonly carried gear includes a helmet with attached night vision device (4.3 pounds), a 1-liter water bladder (8 pounds), as well as radios and extra ammunition. Marines often carry at least one day's supply of water.
Laboring under all that weight, the number of soldiers sidelined with stress fractures, chronic muscle or tendon inflammation and similar problems "has continued to inch up, and that is a concern when you're seeing the force at the level we are now," Chiarelli said.
For years, the Pentagon has sought ways to reduce the burden that soldiers carry. But in the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops often patrol on foot and where firefights often are at close range, they have been issued more ammunition and added body armor.
Nevertheless, Chiarelli promised, "We're going to try to find a way to lighten the soldier's load."