Pentagon Faces Dilemma on Mental-Health Rest

Military mental-health experts say that soldiers need a minimum of 12 months at home between combat tours. The Pentagon's current troop-rotation policy requires that time now — but it often includes training and postings that take troops away from their families. As the Iraq war continues, it may be difficult for the Pentagon to observe the guidance its experts suggest.

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A Pentagon advisory team has found that soldiers with longer and repeated tours in Iraq are more likely to have mental-health problems. The team is sending more counselors to help troops on the front lines.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, soldiers and Marines are not being given what mental-health experts say they really need, namely more time away from combat.

TOM BOWMAN: Combat in Iraq is especially grueling, fighting a shadowy insurgency, many times in teeming cities. It's often difficult to separate friend and foe. Also, soldiers and Marines are being sent back repeatedly to Iraq. It's beginning to take a toll.

Army Colonel Carl Castro is a member of the Mental Health Advisory Team.

Colonel CARL CASTRO (Team Leader, Mental Health Advisory Team-IV): The longer are soldiers deployed the more likely they are to have a mental-health issue. So, of course, we're very, very concerned about it.

BOWMAN: Soldiers and Marines are coming back with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression - up to 17 percent of those in combat showed these symptoms. Castro and others on the team say there is now more training on things like suicide prevention. More counselors are heading to the frontlines. But the team found that the most crucial element here is time - more time at home or less time in combat.

The taskforce recommends at least a year and a half between tours of duty. Major General Gale Pollock heads the Army Medical Command.

Major General GALE POLLOCK (Head, U.S. Army Medical Command): Shorter deployments or longer intervals between deployments would allow soldiers and Marines better opportunities to reset mentally before returning to combat.

BOWMAN: But right now soldiers have just one year in the United States before heading back to Iraq. At least, three months of that time is spent away from families, training, for example, in the Mojave Desert. The Army just increased the length of combat tours - 15 months - that's up from a year.

Castro says the taskforce recommended pulling whole units off the line after three or four months of combat. That would allow them to reset and recover.

Has that been put into effect?

Col. CASTRO: No, not to my knowledge. It has not been.

BOWMAN: Marines are in better mental health than soldiers, the survey found. That's likely because their combat tours are shorter. The survey also found that Marines are more likely than soldiers not to report that a fellow Marine injured or killed a civilian in Iraq - less than half of Marines would do so, more than half of soldiers said they would turn in a comrade for such behavior.

General Pollock says this reluctance is understandable.

Maj. Gen. POLLOCK: These men and women have been seeing their friends injured, and I think that having that thought is normal.

BOWMAN: That's where training and leadership comes in, making sure troops do the right thing. Gary Solis is a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War and a lawyer who has studied war crimes. He found those statistics troubling.

Mr. GARY SOLIS (Former Marine Corps Prosecutor; Vietnam War Veteran): It tells me that they're disregarding orders and training. I think this may be considered a subset of this unacceptably high operational tempo as well. It's dismaying but I'm not shocked.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon is increasing the size of their ground troops that will one day make for shorter and less frequent combat tours. But General Pollock says it won't happen overnight.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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