Exhausted, Overextended Troops Ready to 'Unravel'

A central theme of General David Petraeus' tour of Capitol Hill are his pleas for patience with the U.S. war in Iraq. He called for a "pause" against the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, citing the need to consolidate the gains that have been achieved over the past few months.

The crushing burden our military already endures ought to give serious pause to Members of Congress. The health of our military must be a top priority because current deployment rates are grinding up our military men and women, tearing at the bonds of families, eroding military readiness -- and leaving us less secure at home.

It is commonly known that a very small percentage of the American population has borne a disproportionate burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is less commonly understood is that our Army's Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) -- a subset of this already small population -- have been repeatedly sent to the frontlines, enduring high-intensity combat for extended periods with inadequate time at home between tours. This has always been a problem during America's wars, but at least in previous conflicts the draft provided a pool of manpower resources that could be dipped into to provide rest for those who bore the greatest burden. That is no longer true.

Some Army BCTs have deployed four times since Sept. 11, 2001. Members of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan, had a mere six months of dwell time between their second and third deployments since Sept. 11. Dozens of soldiers based at Fort Carson, Colorado, were recently sent back to Iraq despite having medical conditions that should have made them ineligible for continued deployments.

Untreated mental health problems suffered during combat are causing large numbers of repeatedly deployed troops "to unravel," in the words of an exhausted Army officer. Where once this country guaranteed its soldiers two days at home for every day deployed, that dwell-time ratio is now down to less than a day at home for every day deployed.

Pentagon reports make clear the problems unleashed on our troops by post-9/11 deployment cycles -- one recently termed the crisis "daunting and growing." Pentagon data show that after two deployments, the rate of mental health problems in the ranks grows by nearly half. Those who seek treatment often have to wait more than a month to see a medical professional.

The crush of deployments reaches beyond the full-time military, tearing at our National Guard as well. The Guard was designed for primarily domestic missions and is populated -- even more heavily than the active-duty Army -- by husbands and wives who support families. About one-half of National Guard members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from mental health problems and are almost one-third more likely to develop post-combat mental health issues than their active-duty peers.

The same holds true for soldiers who serve in in highly sophisticated specialty units. The military is struggling to keep and recruit enough medical professionals, but it cannot match the pace of our current operations. In 2007, there were fewer military mental health officials in Iraq than there had been at any time since the first year of the war.

As a veteran, I have very real memories of the Vietnam War and am all too familiar with the human fallout produced when our country does not account for the toll of combat on its troops. The problem this time around is compounded by the heroic families who support, and depend on, our men and women in uniform. During the Vietnam War, the average age of those in combat was 19 while today it tops 27 years of age for active-duty troops and 33 years for members of the Guard. Nearly half of those killed in action today leave behind a spouse and/or children.

We owe our brave men and women far better than this hazardous deployment cycle; we also owe their families more. We cannot ask the same people to continue making sacrifices -- again, and again and again. It is impossible to know whether the current U.S. strategy for winning the war in Iraq will work, but the harm being done to our troops and their families by ongoing deployments, without sufficient time at home, is already clear.

When our elected representatives talk about the "readiness" of the military, they must also talk about the health of our troops. We cannot consider our military "ready" while we have troops on their third, fourth and fifth tours. Time is of the essence. Sacrifice and deployments continue while policy is debated. Half of New Jersey's National Guard is scheduled to mobilize for deployment this fall.

Our troops risk everything for us -- it's time for all Americans to consider the risks on them as this war continues without a foreseeable end.

The problem that I point out is not theoretical -- the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral David Mullen, is clearly worried that multiple deployments without requisite rest is playing havoc with our military. A four star naval officer, Mullen says that "the Army" is his number one concern. Why? "I remember the problems we had in the post-Vietnam era," he says. "And believe me, I am dedicated the ensuring that we don't have these problems again." The Army is not yet broken, Mullen says, but it is "badly strained."


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