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Combat Stress Driving Up Army Crime, Drug Abuse, Suicides

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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
The U.S. Army, under the accumulating stress of nine years at war, is suffering an alarming spurt of drug abuse, crime and suicide that is going unchecked, according to an internal study that depicts an Army in crisis.

A small but growing number of soldiers who perform credibly in combat turn to high-risk behavior, including drug abuse, drunken driving, motorcycle street-racing, petty crime and domestic violence, once they return home.

As a result, more soldiers are dying by drug overdose, accident, murder and suicide than in combat. Suicide is now the third-leading cause of death for soldiers.

"Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy,'' concludes the extraordinary internal Army investigation commissioned by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

The study also found that across the Army, leaders have lost visibility and accountability over their soldiers, in many cases unaware that soldiers under their command had abused drugs, committed crimes or even previously tried to commit suicide. Drug testing is done only sporadically, the study found, and there are no central repositories for criminal data.

Those same themes are reflected dramatically in the case of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade of Fort Lewis, Washington, who are charged with the wanton murder of Afghan civilians in Kandahar last spring. Questions have been raised about how their commanders could have missed such warning signs as drug abuse -- some of the soldiers were allegedly smoking hashish in their rooms -- that might have led them to look deeper.

No one suggests that such aberrant and ugly crimes can be traced just to the effects of stress. But as Chiarelli acknowledged, the indications of problems within the Army are "troubling.''

And the pressure is unrelenting. Over the next 12 months the Army plans to pull about 66,000 soldiers away from their homes and families and send them into combat in Afghanistan, many for the second or third time. There, these soldiers will replace troops just finishing their 12-month tours.

In all, about 200,000 soldiers will deploy in the coming year in routine rotations to maintain Army forces in South Korea, Kosovo, the Sinai, Iraq and elsewhere. The 45,000 soldiers currently assigned to duty in Iraq are due to be withdrawn by December 2011, unless a revised U.S.-Iraqi agreement enables American trainers and advisers to stay longer, as is likely.

And in Afghanistan, unless President Barack Obama authorizes a major troop reduction next summer, which seems unlikely, planned troop rotations will continue to maintain the 69,000 soldiers in that country. (Roughly 31,000 Marines, Navy and Air Force personnel also serve in Afghanistan.)

Even though some troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, the Army is still straining to fill its overseas commitments.

"The reality is that in the active-duty force, we have very few units in the 'available' pool who aren't heading somewhere,'' said Brig. Gen. Peter C. Bayer, director of strategy, plans and policy for the Army operations staff. "It should come as no secret,'' he added, "that when you run at the pace we're on, it comes at a cost.''

Those are mostly hidden behind the Army's "can-do'' ethos and the stoic heroism of its soldiers and families. Desertion and AWOL rates, for instance, are no higher now than during the peacetime years of the1990s, and retention numbers, which measure re-enlistments, are surpassing the Army's goals.

But behind those simple measures is a darker reality.

Today, more than 100,000 soldiers are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using drugs illicitly. Misdemeanor offenses are rising by 5,000 cases a year.

With the pressing need for manpower, the Army has retained more than 25,000 soldiers who would otherwise have been discharged for misbehavior, including 1,000 soldiers with two or more felony convictions.

The most at-risk soldiers are the Army's youngest, buffeted by leaving home, struggling through basic training, adjusting to their first unit and deploying, all normally within two years. They lack the toughening and resiliency of older soldiers, and often haven't been in a unit long enough to develop strong ties with other soldiers and leaders.

Among the growing number of Army suicides -- which soared past the civilian rate in 2008 and reached a record 239 last year -- most are soldiers with less than 24 months in the service. About one third of the Army's suicides are soldiers who had never deployed even once.

In addition to suicides, the Army recorded 107 fatal accidents among its active-duty soldiers, and 50 murders, an ugly toll of 345 active-duty, non-combat deaths, about 100 more than were killed in combat in 2009.

Much of the stress soldiers endure could be alleviated by time away from combat. But soldiers of all ranks, the Army investigation found, don't have enough time at home between deployments to recover. "Each time I come back it takes longer to return to what my family and friends regard as normal,'' said Bayer, who completed three combat tours in Iraq and now works at the Pentagon. "I'd come home wound tight, and it's a cumulative effect.''

In fact, it takes 24 to 36 months to return to "normal'' from the high intensity of combat, the Army said -- while most soldiers are at their home base for 18 months or less between deployments.

"This is uncharted territory,'' said Robert Scales, a retired major general, historian, and former commandant of the Army War College. "We have no experiential data to tell us why anything causes emotional collapse after such enormous strain ... In some units, it's not about how many trips to the 'sand box' soldiers have made but the emotional wearing that comes from uncertainty and an overbearing sense of foreboding that all too often accompanies units as they deploy multiple times."

"Frankly,'' said Scales, a decorated combat officer who has studied the performance of small infantry units, "I am amazed that the Army and Marine Corps have held together for so long.''

The Army has had an aggressive anti-suicide program under way for some time, and has now begun tackling other problems it has identified. Chief among them: given the hectic pace of training and deployments, commanders often fail to keep track of soldiers who are developing problems and engaging in high-risk behavior. There is no Army-wide database for drunken-driving citations or misdemeanor offenses, for instance.

The Army has tightened its screening of recruits to weed out those with fragile personalities. But already, 75 percent of American teenagers aren't eligible for the Army because they are overweight or have other physical disabilities, can't pass the entrance exam, or they have a criminal record. And Army recruiters are prevented by law from asking for recruits' medical records.

Senior officers acknowledge that all these problems are likely to haunt the Army as long as the pace of deployments remains so high.

"The good news,'' Chiarelli observed this summer, "is that soldiers are seeking behavioral health care in record numbers.''
Filed Under: Afghanistan, Military, Iraq

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248 Comments

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davishdh

First we are told that we are running out of OIL, Then we are told that Health care cost have spiraled out of Control. Whats next building supplies ?

October 24 2010 at 9:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
monseigneurdev

"Staying the course" (in Iraq) is about as dumb as "buy and hold" (for your 401K). The Democrats control the U.S government and spent $4 Trillion...but has your life gotten better? Sell the Democrats and buy Republican. They're going to "stay the course" until you give up...which means they lose too...but their professor didn't tell them that.

October 23 2010 at 6:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
weathwoods

Our government took the position that detainees who had been tortured, even though innocent, should not be released, since their unfair treatment would incline them to becoming terrorists. Let's apply this same logic to our GI's. Since their prolonged service inclines them to post-service violence, they should be kept in uniform forever.

October 20 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
catsmile33

The are BORED! WE outsourced all of the work on our bases under the guise that it is "cheaper" for tax payers to send all of it to contractors and friends of the politicians. So our men and women fight hard when they are overseas, and live on adrenaline - and then come home and sit in barracks doing SQUAT! Give these men their dignity back - give them back the running of their base. Painting rocks, peeling potatos, being the cook, guarding the base, building and maintaining the housing, etc... were all done by the military solidiers before. It taught them new skills, and it kept them busy and their minds off of what they had gone through. And you CAN NOT tell me it is cheaper to pay some contracting company to do these tasks - when you are ALREADY paying the soldier to sit there! My son is BORED to tears when he comes home from deployment - my only relief is that he is married and therefore stays out of the more wild actions.

October 19 2010 at 10:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Niicole

200 million people hooked on prescription drugs Everyone from Kindergarten to Great Grand Mom, with 1.3% of their population incarcerated, with another 1% watching them. A welfare nation with no work ethic, self centered lazy & now unemployable. I believe that when the dollar collapses & is replaced as the stanrdard of buying & selling in the world, there will be blood shed on the streets of America. Americans against Americans, Cripts against Bloods Blacks against Whites & An Army thats Unarmed & out of country, A National guard that will turn tail & run, An unprepaired unarmed people except for the outlaws. Why bother bombing America? Give them what they want, GIVE THEM MORE PILLS!!! Lunesta? Ambien? Weary Leg Syndrome, Extends, Viagra or Postivac? Late Night TV? Oh & waiting for your huvverround or you skooter from the skooter store. Give them what they want give them Bigger Shopping Malls, Big Screen TV's in their gov subsidised dwellings & Fancy cars Give them a credit line. The United States should put a white flag on the pentagon lawn. Salute your new flag America RITE AID

October 19 2010 at 9:17 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
friendlykenn

What did anyone expect when these poor troops are subject daily to the chance they may be blown apart? And then to have to go back to that state over and over again - no wonder suicide seems preferable! And all this because of UNPUNISHED BLATANT LIES!!!!! All these comforable old duffers in Congress send these poor prople to bleed and die and THEY DON'T CARE!! We should get out of Iraq and Afganistan immediately before one more person has to end up in bloody death or horribly maimed. The stupid corporation owned press gives us celebrity nonsense and baseball scores on its front pages!!! My god - what has happened to journalism? Who cares what starlet is now seeing another starle's husband? And how important is it in the sceme of things that we know who hit how many home runs when our troops are out there dying with no one even noticing or caring. Hideous, hideous, hideous!!!!!!!!!!

October 19 2010 at 6:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
marfrankl

HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO DO THE SAME THING TO REALIZE IT DOESN'T WORK! We want to win the "hearts and minds" of everyone at the expense of our soldiers and our economy. Doesn't anyone read histories of war? My late husband was a combat medic with 100% disabality. He retired after 22 years of service including 2 tours of duty in Viet Nam. He retired at age 37. When he was 50 he had his first heart attack. For the next 19 years he died a slow death from his exposure to Agent Orange which was not recognized by DOD until 1980. When he died at age 69 he had 11 Dr's trying to keep him alive. He had congestive heart failure with 5 stints, high blood pressure, diabetis 2, kidney failure, non-hodgins lympnomia and PDSD, esophagus closure and artery by-pass in both legs. I am sure I have missed something. However, Viet Nam is now a tourist attraction. War is ego and greed driven. When will we reach the "hearts and minds" of the American soldier and their famalies. What will the future hold for these young soldiers. Will they have to fight for their medical and financial needs? Will we ever decide that Americans need the financial aid that we send to all these countries...that don't even like us? Thank you for reading. marfrankl@aol.com

October 19 2010 at 3:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mildred

In my opinion men should be a certain age to enlist. not to say it gets better but they may be stronger emotionally. I think its about time our country removed themselves from any war and used our young men in peacetime efforts and distributing what is needed in third world countrys. and that should be an ammendment. The could secure our borders. we are in a serious situtation and by sending our young men to kill and be maime is horrific. I dont knowom but it seems to me there is people looking to tear down our country. Wake up Americans ,letschange our direction.m ySon was fortunate he served in the army at the age of 17, in VietNam He served in the airforce, para rescue and merchant marines and it take its toll. Familys must be more supportive. the final word is FAITH IN GOD!! we seem to be lacking that.

October 19 2010 at 1:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mildred's comment
weathwoods

You should realize two things: first, the Taliban did not stage 9/11, Arabs did; second, losing is not an option for Muslims. We can end this war very simply: pull out.

October 20 2010 at 4:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cc381

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- From: Ccommella81@aol.com To: Ccommella81@aol.com Sent: 10/18/2010 11:46:20 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time Subj: (no subject) I was a Field Training Officer assigned at the police academy. These boys and I do mean boys have come back screwed up and they are not getting them any help before entering back in everyday living. Even after some of them get help on there own they are still scared for life of what they saw and did. The last class I had before retiring had many young men that had been in battle fire which they where sent in to bring some other guys out and ran out of ammo. they sat there for days until help arrived. They watch some of there own friends die right in front of them.They don't want there pictures taken and they don't want you to know anything about what happen to them and they don't want you to know anything about there family's. Some of them would look at you and say your dead to me if you corrected them. They thought everything they did had to come through their military Sergeant or they did not have to take orders from you. Many of them go into law-enforcement and they should not have been hired. But as it goes some departments hire them because they believe they defended our Country so they would make good officers. This is further from the truth. One that had to take his ranking away not once but twice because he did sexual things, that pictures where taken of female classmates. Then he was the Company Commander and was not leading the class. Then he went off campus and lied about it. Because I removed his ranking he told me I was dead in his eyes. He never again spoke to me. I went to the woman above me and she did nothing but take his side. When he graduated and started at his department he went out picked up two dancers and went back to his home with these dancers and they stole his badge, gun and car. He told his department that they put something in his drink. His department suspended him ,but he was called again to go back over to war, and he is now back on our streets. We are sending 18,19, and 20 year old kids over their and they are coming back with such images in their minds that cause depression. Some really have not engage life back in America. I don't know why we as Country do not help these young people. I think it is ashamed that it is not mandatory that each and everyone of these men and women don't get some help before they are release to come home. I had one young man that was a father of two boys. He did not want any pictures taken of him or his family. I honored his request. But the entire time he was in my class I never saw happiness in his eyes. I ran into him year later and he still had so much sadness in his eyes. It was like he was moving through life following what was expected of him.

October 18 2010 at 10:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cc381's comment
wescus

I think you are WAY OFF BASE. I have been a police officer for 30 years and was a military policeman before that. I have worked with numerous returning combat vets who are OUTSTANDING police officers. The officers I've worked with who had the MOST combat experience were calmer and more compassionate than non-vet officers. I'm sure combat has a negative effect on some people, but I have yet to see it in our returning police officers. If anything, I've seen these guys seem to appreciate life more and not sweat the little things. EXACTLY the kind of guys you want as police officers...

October 20 2010 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rdd2897

I say reinstate the draft maybe thatway our men can rotate home more often , And maybe we wont have so many in our prisons

October 18 2010 at 7:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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