Military Study Ties War Trauma, Violence At Home Soldiers in a single Army unit killed as many as 11 people after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the military said last week. One contributing factor? The psychological trauma of war. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling talks to Guy Raz about the military's efforts to deal with soldier trauma and ease their re-entry into civilian life.
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Military Study Ties War Trauma, Violence At Home

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Military Study Ties War Trauma, Violence At Home

Military Study Ties War Trauma, Violence At Home

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Members of a single, battle-scarred Army unit have killed as many as 11 people after returning home. In a new study, the Army has concluded that those soldiers might have been driven, in part, by the traumas they went through in war.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been covering troops and their mental health problems for several years now, and he says the biggest news in this report is hidden between the lines.

Danny, what struck you most about this new study?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: It's really disturbing because the study shows that all the problems soldiers complained about when they started investigating this issue more than three years ago, they're still problems.

Soldiers say they come back from Iraq with serious mental health issues, but they can't get adequate help. And Guy, what's so troubling about this is, military leaders and members of Congress and government officials have kept telling the public, we've learned our lessons. We're going to make sure that troops get all the help they need, and this new report suggests it's not happening, at least at Fort Carson. That's the Army base they studied.

RAZ: Before we get into those details, let's take a step back. Why did the Army do this study in the first place?

ZWERDLING: Well, you might remember there was a flurry of stories over the past couple years about six soldiers from Fort Carson. They allegedly killed eight people near the base.

Last fall, for example, do you remember the soldier named Robert Marko? He got national news.

RAZ: Right.

ZWERDLING: He allegedly confessed to having violent sex with a teenager and then slitting her throat. So the commander at Fort Carson asked the Army to figure out: Is there some pattern that explains why the soldiers allegedly committed these crimes?

And Guy, this is actually the one piece of good news in this whole story because here's this top commander. His name is Major General Mark Graham. He's basically saying, look, I want to find out if maybe we're doing something wrong with the way we're treating these soldiers.

You know, people who know Graham have told me that this is one guy who's not afraid of the truth.

RAZ: And what patterns did those researchers find?

ZWERDLING: Well, the researchers ended up studying a bunch of soldiers who killed people, going back to 2005. And first of all, they found that those soldiers were involved in more intense fighting in Iraq than soldiers in the comparison group.

Second, those soldiers had a higher rate of mental health problems than others who came back from the war, more post-traumatic stress disorder, more traumatic brain injury. They had a higher rate of taking drugs. And as you know, studies show that troops with PTSD and traumatic brain injury often abuse drugs as a way of trying to cope.

RAZ: Danny, I think a lot of people might assume that, you know, when troops come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, they're probably badly scarred in more ways than one, and perhaps possibly more likely to commit crimes than other people. What is important or new about this report?

ZWERDLING: Well, you're right, but there have actually been very few good studies which examine whether those assumptions are true.

Okay, so this new study suggests that troops with the kinds of problems we've been talking about do commit more killings, but they only looked at a small number of soldiers who kill people, and there just needs to be more research.

RAZ: Are there still problems there, at least at Fort Carson?

ZWERDLING: Well, the study says absolutely yes. Remember, back in 2006, the soldiers at Fort Carson were telling us that they had a terrible time getting help when they came back from the wars, even when they were feeling suicidal.

RAZ: Right.

ZWERDLING: They couldn't get intensive therapy. They couldn't get any good help for kicking drugs. They couldn't get help to stop drinking themselves into a stupor every night.

Just as bad, they said when commanders found out they had mental health problems, the commanders punished them instead of trying to help.

RAZ: And I remember that after your stories came out, the military apologized, and they promised that they would start all kinds of new programs to make sure soldiers got all the help they need.

ZWERDLING: Yeah, and guess what? This report found that Fort Carson still doesn't have anywhere near the mental health staff it needs. The report says they're supposed to have 23 psychologists, but the base has barely half that.

RAZ: Wow.

ZWERDLING: They're supposed to have 14 psychiatrists. They have only nine. Everybody with alcohol or drug problems is supposed to go to special programs to help them, but most of the soldiers do not, and the soldiers still report that they don't ask for help because commanders will punish them if they do.

RAZ: So how do you explain that? I mean, are military officials just lying when they say we're going to make things better, or is this more complicated?

ZWERDLING: I think it's more complicated because by all accounts, General Graham genuinely understands that there needs to be sweeping changes at Fort Carson, in fact, across the whole Army. But Guy, you've covered the military for years. It's such a huge, ponderous institution.

RAZ: Right.

ZWERDLING: I mean, it's so slow to change that it's terribly difficult to shake things up and give soldiers the help they need.

RAZ: That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Danny, thanks so much.

ZWERDLING: Guy, thank you.

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