A recent Army health report draws an alarming profile of a fighting force more prone to inexcusable violence amid an “epidemic” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the mental breakdown attracting speculation as a factor in a massacre of Afghan civilians this month.
Based on an exhaustive study of nearly 500,000 soldiers, reservists and veterans, the report finds that troops are more likely to commit suicide and violent sex offenses, and notes that as many as 236,000 suffered from PTSD since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For military analysts, the reason is the nightmarish experience of sustained combat: Soldiers have been fighting the longest war in U.S. history, with frequent stressful deployments and compressed rest time back home.
“The real issue here, which I’ve been tracking for a long time, is 10 years of combat,” said military analyst Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer.
“I see these kids who have been in combat year after year after year. It is taking a real toll, not only medical, but being able to sort out their lives. What this kid caved to I think could be an epidemic. It is really long term what we are doing to a generation of volunteers.”
ArmyStaff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians on March 11 in a nighttime shooting spree through three villages near his base. He has been detained at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., since Friday.
His experience and those of thousands of his colleagues are common in what has become not only the longest war but also the unkindest for troops, in terms of rest time in theater.
Fighting insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a nearly nonstop exercise in patrols, raids and firefights with no real battle lines. Even at a forward operating base, soldiers can be hit by a rocket, a suicide bomber or an Afghan who turns and starts shooting Americans.
The Army report, “Generating Health and Discipline In the Force,” notes that the average infantryman in World War II in the South Pacific experienced a total 40 days of combat during the entire war.
“In contrast, the [operational tempo] in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade has remained persistently high, providing very few opportunities for individuals to rest, either physically or mentally,” the report says.
Among the professionals taking note of the Army’s “epidemic” of post-traumatic stress disorder are the lawyers who end up defending soldiers who commit irrational acts.
Take the case of Army Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich.