“I just want to say that most of us are tired mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our children really don’t know their parents. Marriages are suffering. Our spouses are tired and stressed. I was really hoping that my husband would not re-enlist again but he did. The strain of these deployments (this is our third) is showing in our community. I have never seen so much stress in my life until we became a military family.”
(Posted October 28, 2009, on the “Sound Off” blog of the web site of the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, Watertown, New York.)
As President Barack Obama begins ordering 30,000 more soldiers into the Afghanistan/Pakistan War, Michele’s statement raises two fundamental questions: How is the United States using its “all volunteer” military, and is this not violating basic civil and human rights of US military personnel and their families?
Also see: Part One.
Moreover, it is important to examine how apparent violations of the constitutional rights of US military and their families are a direct result of US violation of rights of the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Morale Under Assault
High morale is essential for effective fighting. So, according to an article in the November 10, 2009, edition of Syracuse’s The Post Standard, Maj. Gen. James L. Terry, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, became concerned when he saw an October 8, 2009, report by The Times of London saying that two chaplains from the 10th Division stationed in Afghanistan were reporting low morale among 10th Division troops. The Times article began: “American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned …”
General Terry, who took command of the 10th in September 2009, decided to go to Afghanistan to see for himself what was going on with his soldiers, according to The Post Standard. One of the things he did for morale when he came back, the article continued, was to put the question – “Morale – How are we doing?” – on the 10th Division’s Task Force Mountain (TFM) web site, addressing, the paper said, “36,000 members of the Fort Drum community, here and abroad.”
Explaining the request for comments on morale, the TFM web site says: “Some recent news articles have questioned the morale of our Soldiers and Families and their ability to sustain themselves through an era of persistent conflict (emphasis added).”
Michele’s response to General Terry’s question is representative of others on the TFM blog that speak to the demands of “persistent conflict.” General Terry, and the US military, face profound morale problems in part because they are drawing from a military force that is far too small to support wars of occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, soldiers and their families are progressively worn down.
General Terry, also facing the shock to morale caused by recent deaths and casualties in the 10th (noted in Part One), recognizes that the current deployment schedule for his soldiers, one year deployed, one year at home, one year deployed and on and on, is adding to the stress of his soldiers and families and progressively eroding their morale.
“I get that,” General Terry is quoted by The Post Standard. “Given that we’re an army at war in a persistent conflict, what we can control is dwell time (the time soldiers are home).
But it is far from clear that General Terry can do that. Reporting on the December 2, 2009, congressional testimony of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Associated Press said:
“Mullen said supplying the extra forces for Afghanistan while there are still so many troops in Iraq will mean putting off for a couple of years the goal of lengthening the time they rest and retrain at home between tours of duty – a period the military calls ‘dwell time.’ The Army had been moving toward giving two years of dwell time between each one-year tour.”
This does not bode well for mental health of soldiers, judging from a report released in November 2009 by the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army Medical Command, based on surveys conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan in late 2008 and early 2009 by the Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT). The report, commonly known as MHAT VI, the latest in a series of studies of mental health in the war zones, finds that:
“Soldiers with short dwell-time report high mental health problems, high intent to leave the military and low morale. A near return to garrison rates of mental health problems occurs around 24 months with full return around 30 to 36 months of dwell time.”
While this finding was contained in the Iraq section of the report, it is intended for Afghanistan as well. It means that a soldier needs to be home for at least 2-1/2 to three years to have the best chance to achieve a level of mental health comparable to the norm on a base in the US or otherwise outside the war zones.
The Damage of Multiple Deployments
The problems for the soldiers and their families involve much more than “dwell time”, however. Multiple deployments, without which the US could not conduct its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are being found to increase mental health problems among soldiers as the number of deployments increase.
MHAT VI, in its study of male, non-commissioned officers in Afghanistan, reported that:
“Three-plus times deployers are significantly more likely to meet the criteria for a psychological problem (31 percent) than are first (13.6 percent) or second time (18.1 percent) deployers.”
MHAT VI reported similar findings in Iraq, as did MHAT V, conducted in late 2007, which explained:
“One of the most dramatic findings (of the team study) centered on the effects of multiple deployments. As a group, those soldiers who were on their second deployment or on their third/fourth deployment were at increased risk of low morale, mental health problems and degraded performance due to stress or emotional problems.”
MHAT V said that two similar previous Army medical health studies found “the behavioral health status of soldiers on the second deployment was significantly lower than the health of those on their first deployment.” It reported that 21.5 percent of soldiers on the third/fourth deployments reported that stress and emotional problems were limiting their ability to do their jobs, compared to 17.5 percent on their second deployment and 14.8 percent on their first deployment.
The stress of multiple deployments is reflected in increased use of mental health medications as the number of deployments increase. In Afghanistan, MHAT VI found 3.5 percent of soldiers reported using mental health medications during the first deployment, 4.5 percent during the second deployment and 9.8 percent during the third deployment.
The report noted, in discussing the use of mental health medications:
“The negative effects of multiple deployments were discussed in the majority of focus groups. One maneuver (combat) unit soldier summed it up by saying, “multiple long-term deployments – it is hard on everyone. It is starting to wear on people.”
Army Lt. Col. Paul Bliese, one of the chief researchers of MHAT VI, said that combat, being in a war, is what makes multiple deployments a damaging factor. There is no concern, he said noted, about multiple deployments to US bases outside war zones such as in Germany.
Multiple deployments can create great emotional strain for families by repeatedly tearing a soldier, often a parent, away for a year or more from his or her family and culture, domestic responsibility and the availability to give and receive the love that is essential to a healthy life.
This destructive process was starkly dramatized, in the extreme, in November 2009 when Army Spec. Alexis Hutchinson missed deployment to Afghanistan because plans fell through for child care for her 10-month-old son. Hutchinson was arrested by the Army, which put her baby in the care of an Army child-care provider for “roughly over a day,” the Army said, before transferring the boy to the care of her mother. An Army spokesman said on December 4, 2009, that Specialist Hutchinson is “living with other soldiers in a barracks room,” and “is meeting and speaking with her attorneys, both military and civilian regarding her alleged misconduct.” Her deployment is indefinitely postponed.
MHAT VI found that soldiers in Afghanistan reporting marital problems increased with numbers of deployments as follows: first deployment – 4.3 percent; second – 12.6 percent; third – 30.8 percent.
MHAT V reports the following from a focus group study of 53 Iraq war soldiers in late 2007:
“In the focus groups, interviewees were also asked about how their families were doing. Some interviewees became reticent, while those that did disclose how their families were doing noted that it was a hardship on their families. Typical responses were, ‘they are stressed, upset,’ ‘worried,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘frustrated,’ ‘struggling a bit,’ ‘excited for me to come home,’ ‘doing as good as they can be,’ ‘big strain on extended family helping with the kids.’
“Among those that have deployed before, a few soldiers spontaneously reported their time away compared to their time home with their families. For example, one NCO noted that, ‘out of 5 years, only 19 months with my family.’ Another commented that ‘I’ve been married for 3 years but I’ve only been with my wife 6 months. She is surviving … sits alone and picks up the checks.’ …
“For some interviewees, another stressor was the separation from small children: ‘What kills me is that my son was born in July and I wasn’t there for the birth and he started crawling 2 months after R&R. That was hard.’ Another soldier noted that, ‘You hear stories about Joes going on R&R and the kid doesn’t remember them.'”
“What Happened to You During the War?”
Another critical factor facing soldiers and military families are soldiers’ experiences during deployment and the cumulative impact of these experiences.
Multiple deployment means returning again and again to the wars of “counter-insurgency,” essentially wars of occupation and control. These wars, says the Army and Marine Counter-Insurgency Field Manual involve “long-term operations” … “Even in situations where the US goal is reducing its military force levels as quickly as possible, some support for HN (host nation) institutions usually remains for a long time.”
A war of occupation/counter-insurgency is long, bloody and tedious because many people in the “host nations” – in the current case Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis – resist the loss of sovereign, civil, human and economic rights resulting from occupation, often resisting violently.
In Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, US soldiers, in terms of what is actually happening, are shock troops for, and enablers of, the opening of local political and economic systems to US and Western political, financial and corporate powers. This type of activity was revealed, for example, in March 2008, when Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said at a press conference that he had been in touch with unnamed major energy companies to encourage them to invest in Iraq. It seems likely that General Petraeus assured executives that their investments would be protected.
The US government has had a consistent policy since 2001 of explaining the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as wars against terrorism, denying that there is any commercial interest in oil, gas or other resources by the government or US corporations. For example, there was surprise when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in a book released in 2007: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
The major press corporations conspicuously avoid any serious examination of how oil, gas or other resources, and US corporations, figure into US war planning. I believe this avoidance was a major factor in the decision of Army Times to not carry my Truthout article on US commercial interests in the Afghanistan War (noted in Part One).
Occupation/counter-insurgency warfare is work in which a US solider can be ordered to imprison and kill, sometimes civilians of both sexes and all ages. The soldier may also be called upon to be involved in the bribery, deception, cajoling and haranguing of “host nation” military personnel and civilians. The soldier will almost certainly be treated by them with suspicion, dismissal, deceit, condescension, hatred and, sometimes, violence.
Soldiers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are also contending with heat, cold, terrain and vegetation that are as foreign, and often stressful, to them as the cultural environments. The soldier may experience periods of oppressive boredom and feelings of isolation.
These soul- and spirit-crushing experiences are mixed with the unrelenting fear of being wounded or killed and/or seeing friends wounded or killed, possibly in explosions that do horrific physical and emotional damage.
A soldier coming home to his or her family with even a few of these experiences is a different person from the one who left home, just as with any war. Repeated involvement in war can increase the difficulty of returning to family life, American culture or any non-combat culture. Faces and incidents seen in the intensity of a war can be unforgettable and controlling from one deployment, much less more. The problems of reintegration for soldiers in “counter-insurgency” may be more difficult in some cases than those resulting from conventional war because of the nature of the interactions with local people, described above, many of which are peculiar to counter-insurgency.
Multiple deployments are found to increase the likelihood of emotional damage resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as noted in Part One of this report.
The Army says that PTSD affects 10-15 percent percent of soldiers, but the number is likely to be higher.
The web site Army Medicine says:
“About a third of all soldiers who return from OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) have received mental health care in the year after return … Most of these soldiers do not receive a diagnosis of a mental health problem … Our data suggest that 10-15 percent of post OIF soldiers are at risk for PTSD,” (meaning that in screening they have been found to have: “adjustment reactions, depression, anxiety disorders and alcohol and substance related problems.”) The Army apparently intends that this data be applied to PTSD related to service in Afghanistan too because the web site does not give separate figures for those who have served there.
A study published in July 2004 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found in data gathered in 2003 that PTSD among soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan was directly related to the intensity of their combat experience. At that time, soldiers in Iraq saw more combat, and the study found a prevalence of PTSD to range from 4.5 percent for those involved in no firefights to 19.3 percent for those involved in five or more firefights. These estimates would now likely apply to Afghanistan as it did to Iraq in the early part of the war there.
The study noted:
“For all groups responding after deployment, there was a strong reported relation between combat experience, such as being shot at, handling dead bodies, knowing someone who was killed or killing enemy combatants and the prevalence of PTSD.”
The study said that the level of PTSD in the general population of the US is 3 to 4 percent.
The study raises questions about mental health of veterans of the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in and out of active service: “Of those whose responses met the screening criteria for a mental disorder according to the strict case definition, only 38 to 45 percent indicated an interest in receiving help, and only 23 to 40 percent reported having received professional help in the past year.” These percentages are likely to be reduced now due to new Army programs, which according the MHAT reports have helped reduce soldiers’ fears of being stigmatized, a concern noted in the NEJM report.
Jason Leopold provides a detailed report on the military’s attempts to meet mental health needs of soldiers in a December 1, 2009, Truthout article: Medicating to Maintain Troop Strength
In order to maintain troop strength in the face of widespread PTSD, and to enable redeployment, the Army apparently has a policy of medicating soldiers to a level that will keep them functioning in combat situations, with the full knowledge that redeployment into combat is likely to worsen PTSD, an injury that can for some be totally disabling.
As noted in Part One of this report, Dr. Spencer Falcon, medical director of Samaritan Hospital in Watertown, New York, who works with the Army in combating PTSD among soldiers at Fort Drum, has said that “many” soldiers with PTSD are being returned to combat sustained by medication.
The Army also attempts to “harden” soldiers psychologically to ease deployment and prevent PTSD, according to Dr. Falcon; the MHAT reports also refer to such programs to prepare soldiers emotionally for combat. “Battlemind,” says an Army handout distributed with its latest report on suicides, discussed below, “is a strength-based approach that highlights the skills that helped Warriors survive in combat instead of focusing on the negative effects of combat.”
(There is also “Battlemind” training to prepare spouses for when soldiers come home “to identify common areas of deployment-related concern or conflict that military spouses experience; to provide strategies to enhance your and your Family’s resilience after deployment; and to identify cues for when to seek help and available resources for yourself and your Family.”)
It is not known to what degree anti-depressants and other medications are being used to prepare soldiers to return to combat zones and to sustain them there. The MHAT VI study, as noted earlier, found mental health medications being used by about 9 percent of soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2008 and 2009. In Iraq in early 2008, researchers found that 4.8 percent of combat soldiers reported they were taking medication for mental health, and 5.1 percent of support soldiers took it.
In November 2009, US Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a report “identifying the estimated number and percentage of troops since June 2005 who have been prescribed anti-depressant medications while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.” One of Senator Cardin’s concerns, said his press secretary, Sue Walitsky, is that proper supervision of medication be given in the field. She said there is some indication that certain anti-depressants may induce suicide among people under age 25, so use of this medication should be monitored.
The Cardin initiative does not directly address the issue of using medication to get soldiers back to combat, but Ms. Walitsky said that this concern has been “part of conversations” that Cardin staff members have had with military and civilian mental health experts.
Breaking Up Marriages, Homes, Families
Short dwell time, multiple deployments, personality-changing war experiences, injuries and PTSD are all contributing to the growing military divorce rate.
On November 27, the AP reported: “The toll for a nation long at war is evident in military homes: The divorce rate in the armed forces edged up again in the past year despite many programs to help struggling couples, and the rate now is a full percentage point higher than around the time of the attacks of September 11, 2001.” This amounted to an estimated 27,312 divorces among about 765,000 married members of active-duty forces in the budget year ending in September 2009.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the AP:
“Every marriage has controllable and uncontrollable factors. But when you interject eight years of war, preparing for war, being at war, coming home and having to think about going back to war again – and when you have children – it just has a tremendous impact on the family unit …The military prides itself on take care of military families – and it is true that they do that. Still, at the end of the day, it’s that one mother or father who has to go home and close the door and be at home alone with their children …There’s nothing you can do that will end the stress of having a loved one at war …until the war ends.”
Escaping the Pressure Cooker
The immensity of the stress on soldiers and families because of multiple deployments, PTSD and physical battle wounds is illustrated most dramatically and tragically by the increasing Army suicide rate, called “horrible” by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, according to the November 18, 2009, Washington Post.
As of November 16, the Post reported, 140 soldiers on active duty and 71 soldiers not on active duty were suspected of having killed themselves. General Chiarelli said the total in 2009 will “almost certainly” be higher than 2008.
The report went on to say that the general noted that in more than 40 percent of this year’s suicide cases, the victim had seen “a behavioral health specialist.” He said also that substance abuse is on the rise in the Army.
The AP reported in January 2009 that Pentagon officials expected the 2008 suicide rate to be 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the civilian rate for the first time, by Army accounting. The AP said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate the suicide rate in US society was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the most recent figures available. “But, the AP said, “the Army says the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted.”
Many join the Army simply to protect their families and US society, and many join simply because they need a job.
In January 2009, The Associated Press reported that David Chu, the Pentagon’s personnel chief, said in commenting on the fact that in 2008 all branches of the military met or exceeded their recruiting goals for the first times since 2004:
“We do benefit when things look less positive (economically) … What more difficult economic times give us, I think, is an opening to make our case to people we might not otherwise have.”
The all-volunteer Army relies largely on low-income and middle-income enlistees, according to Army statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the National Priorities Project (NPP), which also show that black Americans, hardest hit by the recession, comprised 16.59 percent of the Army in 2008, up from 14.9 percent in 2007. (12.8 percent of the US population is black.)
Black recruitment jumped 95.69 percent between 2007 and 2008, compared to a rise in white recruitment of 5.1 percent. (In analyzing the Army statistics, the NPP observed that although more blacks than whites enter the Army with a high school diploma, lower black scoring on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) means “differential opportunities and risks associated with joining the Army, depending on one’s race.”)
The need for employment at pay equal to or higher than what one might make outside the military is a long-standing factor drawing people into the all-volunteer military service, judging from a graduate study by Karl Delaney for the US Navy postgraduate school. Based on data gathered between 1992 and 1996, Delaney found that promotion to a higher pay grade was the most significant factor causing soldiers to reenlist. The researcher found further that soldiers who tested better on the AFQT and who had some college experience were less likely to reenlist than those with lower scores and having only a high school education. The report said also: “Black soldiers are more likely to reenlist compared with their white counterparts, and the gap between the races appears to be widening.”
Just as many people join the Army because they are in desperate need of work, many are likely to feel compelled to stay in the Army to be able to continue to support their families.
According to Army Times, enough Army personnel reenlisted in 2008 and early 2009 to cause the Army to reduce its goals for retaining personnel for the first time since 2001. The newspaper reported that: “The Army has achieved its target end strength of 547,400, three years ahead of schedule.”
A factor in reenlistment may also be that as the number of deployments increase an individual is less able to do anything other than military work, due to physical injuries and/or PTSD.
Many people are thus under great pressure to stay in the military and under virtually insurmountable pressure to deploy or face arrest and jail, as in the case of Alexis Hutchinson, noted above.
Civil Rights Lost
The situation of military personnel and military families can fairly be described as that of a sub-group of US society that is experiencing suffering not shared by the general public.
While membership in this sub-group is considered to be voluntary, however much it may be induced by economics, the repeated tours of duty, the work a soldier may ordered to do while on duty and the use medication in order to be returned to combat should not be considered as voluntary. This combination of conditions is historically unusual, if not unique, and is caused by policies that appear to be violating constitutional guarantees against enforced servitude (13th Amendment) and equal protection (14th Amendment).
The Supreme Court decision in the case of Butler v. Perry (1916) has been used to support military conscription against the charge that it amounts to involuntary servitude. The court said that the 13th Amendment “was not intended to interdict enforcement of those duties which individuals owe to the state, such as services in the army, militia, on the jury, etc.”
This case does not seem to be appropriate to a situation of an all-volunteer military in which the general public is effectively hiring a sub-group of society to do the fighting for it. In this case, the society is responsible for the terms and conditions of employment of the military force and their impact. Particular attention must be paid to determine whether the military is experiencing suffering far greater than that being felt by society in general and whether this is a gross violation of the rights of military personnel and their families.
Both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have extended longer than World War II, and mandatory tours of duty in the Viet Nam War were normally about one year.
Of particular concern in relation to the multiple tours is the use of medication and counseling to attempt to make multiple tours endurable by military personnel who may have already suffered deep emotional injury on previous tours.
It is extraordinary that, in the face of growing numbers of divorces and suicides of soldiers, the Army has programs of emotional reengineering to “harden” soldiers and/or medicate soldiers in order to return them to combat.
The use of medicine to enable deployment can be seen as a kind of medicinal incarceration in which anti-depressants, among other medication, and psychological manipulation are being used to confine soldiers to combat for so long as they can usefully function. This is being done with the full knowledge of the Army that repeated exposure to combat increases the chances of disabling mental injury.
In view of the expansion of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan for an indefinite period and the uncertain timetable for the removal of US forces from Iraq, one remedy is for Congress to immediately consider legislation that would permit US military personnel to decline deployment without penalty.
Further, the legislation would need to enable military personnel to leave the military when they decide it is in their best interest to do so, and provide a full-employment program for those leaving the military, with the federal governments providing jobs with pay at least comparable to military pay if the departing person cannot find work in private industry.
Military personnel departing from the military must be provided with full-time employment by the government at an equivalent pay if they cannot find private employment because they are not like any other employees. They are people who have been trained to kill and to be killed. Many have faced the fear, anxiety and suffering of war at the order of their employers, the US government and the US taxpayer. This is a process that changes perspectives and emotional and intellectual responses in unpredictable and sometimes destructive ways, either to self or to society. Once a society induces these changes, it has a responsibility to supply an opportunity for employment to those leaving the military.
Some might argue that a draft would reduce the strain on the “all volunteer” military. While this would increase “dwell time,” it would do nothing to remedy the destructive physical and emotional impact of duty in the wars of occupation. Indeed, it would very likely mean that PTSD among draftees would make the injury more of a national scourge than it is already.
Congress and the nation might consider whether the message of PTSD is that the US cannot continue to conduct wars of occupation, cannot seek to control people in other countries without causing hundreds of thousands of Americans to live lives wretched with anxiety, in addition to those suffering physical wounds.
The restoration of human and civil rights for the US military can come, I suggest, only with Congress voting an end to the US wars of occupation. Getting to this point may require that US society look at the real reasons for these wars and face up to its responsibility to follow well-established guidelines demanding respect for the sovereignty, human and civil rights and the lives of the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.