American Troops Suffering Mental Anguish

Initial reports from the Pentagon's fifth mental health survey in Iraq show increased suicide rates, rising divorce rates for Army personnel, and lower morale.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So there has been a lot of news over the past year about the mental health effects of the war in Iraq on U.S. soldiers. In fact, an investigation by NPR into the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome launched a government investigation on the issue.

The Pentagon has made this a priority as well. And recently, the Department of Defense completed its fifth mental health survey from Iraq. Initial reports show increase suicide rates, rising divorce rates for Army personnel - and lower morale. Top generals will be briefed on the mental health survey in coming weeks.

But NPR's Tom Bowman who reports on the Pentagon was one of the first to get his hands-on information about the survey. And Tom joins me on the phone now at this early hour.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Hello, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: Hey, thanks for being here. I'm doing fine.

As you well know, this is not a new story. It's been around for a little while now. We've seen these kinds of stats before. Is there anything new in this particular report?

BOWMAN: Well, in this one, it shows a divorce rate, which is quite high. For privates and corporals, getting to their 15th month in combat, it shows about a 33 percent divorce rate…

MARTIN: Wow.

BOWMAN: …and for sergeants, it's about 25 percent. So that's really quite high. And people are kind of surprised by that. So that's what's really new here. And there's also a morale figure too. When soldiers go for their first tour in Iraq, roughly a third say, you - my morale is quite good - very good, as a matter of fact. But at the time that you get to the third tour, that drops in half through on and 15 percent say, my morale is pretty good. So it just shows a long time in Iraq, the wearing and the stress on the forces.

MARTIN: And it's really about the length of deployments, right? Is that what's being given as (unintelligible)?

BOWMAN: That's a big part of it. I just get back from Iraq. I was here on October and early November. And they increased the tour over the year from 12 months to 15 months. And a lot of soldiers there - even ones who are really sort of up on the war and think they are doing a pretty god job and pretty optimistic about the future, they told me that, you know, once you get passed a year over there and you're heading toward your 15th month, your morale just drops off. They just - they want to be home. It's too long over there. So that really has a big impact on - in that long tour.

ALISON STEWART, host:

And they probably immensely guard themselves for a specific amount time. You know…

BOWMAN: (Unintelligible) I think they do.

STEWART: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And also, the holidays. I was over there with north of Baghdad with a unit from first cavalry division out of Texas. And these guys, by just the way they arrived here, they will have to spend two Christmases in Iraq.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's tough.

BOWMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And talk about - what are some of the effects of that? I mean, we can sit here and say, oh, clearly, it's not good to have depressed soldiers out in the field. But, what are - how does that translate onto the battlefield? What are really the risks associated with having people out there, who perhaps shouldn't be?

BOWMAN: Well, commanders are supposed to keep an eye on them and make sure they're doing the right job, they're not really depressed or they're not, you know, showing outward signs that would lead a commander to think, you know, this guy needs a little time off. So they do keep a close eye on that, overall. But clearly, if you have a depressed soldier or someone who is troubled, how is that person going to be reacting with the average Iraqi citizens he sees every day - going through the towns and so forth? So, now, there's a real danger here for the mission itself when you see people who aren't, you know, mentally fit, let's say.

MARTIN: You have talked about in your piece - it was on last week on NPR - when other people have reported about the suicide prevention teams that have gone out to Iraq. Can you explain what these are? Is this the first time the military has deployed these teams?

BOWMAN: Right. You know, they deployed them for a couple of reasons. First of all, to take the pulse of the soldiers and how are they doing. They need to help commanders also - tell them, you know, about the warning signs, let's say, about things that they can do. And they also come up with recommendations too.

And the recommendation this time are to send more counselors and psychiatrists over to Iraq to help the soldiers - offer more psychological training to medics, you know, who generally just bandage that wounds here and there. But they want the Medics also to have some training to help these guys.

And the other thing they want is for soldiers who are in multiple tours in Iraq - two or three tours - if there's a job that opens out back home in the United States to try to give them priority for those jobs that'll keep them at least home for a while. So that's what these guys are looking at in this next report. But they probably won't release it until some time next year.

MARTIN: Is there still a stigma, though, you know - NPR reporters - Danny Zwerdling has spent a long time reporting on this - that there's a stigma in the military. You can have all the counselors you want out in the field, but until the cultural condition, until it becomes more acceptable to say, hey, yeah, I got a problem, I'm not feeling so good, and I'm feeling like I need some help - nothing will really change.

BOWMAN: No, I think that's absolutely right. And that's one of the things that psychiatrists I talked with mentioned - that this stigma in the military- I mean, let's face it, it's a big macho organization. Nobody likes to admit he or she has a problem, you know, we can complete the mission.

So to get that message down among these soldiers and the younger commanders that, listen, it's okay. We're in a war zone. You've seen some horrible things. You can have these feelings. You have to deal with it so you don't bring it home to your family. That's the hardest thing they told me to get through to these people, particularly, you know, the younger soldiers and commanders. The older guys, the generals, they sort of - they're starting to come around, I think, now. But to get that message down into the troops is probably the hardest thing to do.

MARTIN: But would you say there is a culture shift that's happening for the first time or these had to cover (unintelligible)?

BOWMAN: Well, I think it's happening - it's happening a little bit. I'm told the day-to-day ground commander in Iraq, Lt. General Ray Odierno - he is taking this very seriously and pushing this with his commanders. But there's a fear that it's really not getting down to the lower level troops quite yet.

MARTIN: Finally, how is all of these affecting standards and recruiting efforts when young potential soldiers are seeing these rates of divorce and suicide and depression? Is that having an effect on recruiting?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet. Clearly, the war is having an overall effect on recruiting in - particularly among what the Army calls the influencers - the parents, coaches, teachers, rabbis, priests - these are the people you might go to and say, hey, you know, I'm thinking of joining the Army, and they might say, listen, we got a war going on. Why don't you hold off a year or two? So if those influencers see or hear the story about increased divorce rates, suicide rates and morale rates, you know, what are they going to say to that young person? They're going to say, you know, why don't you wait a couple of years. Once the troops start coming home from Iraq, once things get a little better over there maybe you can think about joining the Army or they may say, why don't you join the Navy?

MARTIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, it's an important story. Thanks for helping us parsed through it. Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon correspondent. Thanks very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Take care.

BOWMAN: Bye-bye.

STEWART: Because you have fit mental health study.

MARTIN: Yeah, this is something they've been pursuing for a while.

STEWART: Yeah. And obviously, it will be the last one.

MARTIN: Yeah.

STEWART: Hey, coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. We will rouse my husband from his slumber. He has the day off.

MARTIN: Hey, why are we waking him up? We're so mean.

STEWART: Because he's a good guy. He's been dreaming of cherry plums and touchdowns and things like that. We're going to talk sports. Be back in sixty or so seconds. Oh, the Christmas tree investigation, too. Don't forget that. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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