- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

Morale has fallen among soldiers in Afghanistan, where troops are seeing record violence in the 8-year-old war, while those in Iraq show much improved mental health amid much lower violence, the Army said Friday.

Soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase for the first time since 2004, according to a new study.

Though the findings of two new battlefield surveys are similar in several ways to previous ones taken in 2007, they come at a time of intense scrutiny on Afghanistan as President Obama struggles to come up with a new war strategy and a possible troop buildup in Afghanistan. There is also perhaps equal new attention being focused on the mental health of U.S. forces since a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in which an Army psychiatrist has been charged with mass murder.

Both surveys showed that soldiers on their third or fourth tours of duty had lower morale and more mental health problems than those with fewer deployments, while an ever-increasing number of report problems with their marriages.

The new survey on Afghanistan found instances of depression, anxiety and other psychological problems are about the same as they were in 2007. But it also said there is a shortage of mental health workers to help affected soldiers, partly because of the buildup Mr. Obama began this year with the dispatch of more than 20,000 extra troops.

Efforts already under way to get more health workers to the Afghan theater could be hampered by last week’s shooting. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, was slated to go to Afghanistan. Some of the dead and wounded also were to deploy there to bolster psychological services for soldiers.

The new Afghanistan survey found that individual soldier morale was about the same as in previous studies, but that “unit morale rates … were significantly lower than in 2005 or 2007,” said an executive summary of the report that was to be outlined at a news conference Friday. The units referred to were mostly platoons of about a couple dozen soldiers each.

It’s the sixth such survey, in a program that broke new ground when started in 2003 in that it was the biggest effort ever made to measure the health of troops - and the services they receive - right at the front lines.

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