Mental health issues rise among US troops

Associated Press / May 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — American troops in Afghanistan are suffering the highest rates of mental health problems since 2005, and morale has deteriorated, the Pentagon said yesterday.

Military doctors said the findings were no surprise, given the dramatic increase in fighting, which was at its most intense level during the survey period since officials began battlefield mental health analyses in 2003. The grim statistics illustrated the psychological cost of a campaign that US officials say has reversed the momentum of the insurgency in the war-ravaged country.

“There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat,’’ Lieutenant General Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, said at a news conference.

Some 70 percent to 80 percent of troops surveyed said they had seen a buddy killed; roughly half of soldiers and 56 percent of Marines said they had killed an enemy fighter, and about two thirds of troops said that a roadside bomb — the number one weapon of insurgents — had gone off within 55 yards of them.

Those incidents were higher than what troops experienced in the previous year in Afghanistan as well as during the 2007 surge of extra troops into Iraq, the report said. But the rate of psychological problems may actually be small, considering the high level of combat that troops are seeing, said Colonel Paul Bliese, who led the last three survey teams to the battlefield, in 2007, 2009, and 2010.

“We would have expected to see a much larger increase in the mental health symptoms and a much larger decrease in morale . . . based on these incredibly high rates of exposure’’ to traumatic combat events, he said. Meanwhile, the military said that it has doubled the mental health staff in the country to help troops cope.

The new data come from a poll of more than 900 soldiers, 335 Marines, and 85 mental health workers on the Afghan battlefield last summer.