U.S. Troops’ Mental Health Continues to Erode

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For Army troops. from MHAT-7

U.S. troops’ minds are going to hell in a hand basket, according to the latest comprehensive survey of the mental health of U.S. soldiers and Marines waging war in Afghanistan.

“Psychologically, it is hard to imagine that these elevated levels of combat are not taking a toll on Soldiers,” the study concludes. “Reports of acute stress symptoms among Soldiers surveyed in 2010 have significantly increased and reports of individual morale have significantly decreased relative to 2009.”

The key findings in the study released Thursday morning are depressingly blunt. Here’s a sampling of the conclusions from the 112-page report:

Among Army soldiers:

   — Morale: Significant decline in reports of individual morale relative to 2009 and 2005.

    — Psychological Problems: Acute stress rates significantly higher than rates from 2009 and 2005. Rates of combined psychological problem measure (acute stress, depression, or anxiety) significantly higher than 2005.

For Army troops, from MHAT-7

    — Combat Exposures: Dramatic increase in combat exposure relative to 2009. Higher combat levels reported than in any previous MHAT to either OEF or OIF. [OEF is Operation Enduring Freedom — the war in Afghanistan; OIF is Operation Iraqi Freedom — the war in Iraq.]

    — Multiple Deployments: More multiple deployers than in 2009. Soldiers on their third/fourth deployment report significantly more psychological problems and use of mental health medications than Soldiers on their first or second deployment.

 Among Marines:

   — Individual Morale:  …the percent of Marines reporting high or very high unit morale is significantly lower in 2010 than in 2006 or 2007.

    — Psychological Problems: The rate of Marines reporting psychological problems (acute stress symptoms, depression or anxiety) is significantly higher in 2010 than in 2006 or 2007.

    — Combat Exposures: Marines report dramatic increase in combat exposure relative to 2006 and 2007 in OIF.

    — Sleep Problems: Significant increase in the percentage of Marines who report high or very high concern about not getting enough sleep. Sleep disruption primarily due to poor sleep environment (e.g., too hot, noisy, etc.).

    — Multiple Deployments: Marines on three or more deployments report lower morale than those on first deployment. Multiple deploying Marines also show increased psychological problems.

For Marines, from MHAT-7

All this bad news comes despite reported improvements in unit cohesion, leadership, and reduced barriers to getting mental-health care in theater.

Bottom line: the Pentagon’s mental-health workers are fighting a valiant war for the minds of the nation’s soldiers and Marines, but they continue to lose ground.

The Army-led seventh Mental Health Advisory Team surveyed combat soldiers and Marines (as opposed to those in support units) in both Afghanistan last summer to get an accurate picture of how they’re faring, mentally, after nearly a decade of war. They surveyed 911 (a coincidence, I’m sure) and 335 Marines. It’s a pretty impressive feat; in past conflicts such studies generally were conducted among soldiers after they returned home. It’s known as “MHAT-7” around the Pentagon.

Other interesting findings:

— 11.4% of soldiers were taking medication for sleep problems, up slightly from 2009’s 9.6%. But 60% of those taking sleep meds also were drinking at least one highly-caffeinated energy drink a day. “It is difficult to determine if caffeine consumption is the cause or the effect,” the study reported.

— 3.7% of soldiers were taking medication for mental-health problems. That’s up from 2.6% in 2009, an increase of 42%, although the report said the hike was “non-significant” and “well-within the National estimates for this demographic group.”

— IED blasts can cause PTSD. “Over 50% of the Soldiers reported being dismounted and within 50 meters of a blast at least once,” the survey found. “This number is almost certainly an underestimate of the percent of Soldiers that will experience exposure to blast in a full 12 month tour.”

— In Iraq in 2006 — the most violent period of that war — 12.7% of Marines surveyed said they had killed an enemy combatant. Last year in Afghanistan, the number was 56.1%

For Marines, from MHAT-7

The Army quoted many of the soldiers it surveyed. Grunts have griped since the days of the Roman Empire, of course. But after a decade of fighting, some of the recurring comments about poor command — which can aggravate, if not trigger, mental-health ills — are distressing. It certainly offers an unvarnished look inside a war that you can’t get at a Pentagon briefing or Capitol Hill hearing. It’s also more candid than reporters get when talking to troops; here, they are speaking, more or less, among themselves:

Leaving home station, we didn’t have a clue what we were going to do here. Mission set has changed 6 times since in country … be flexible, but not THAT flexible! We are mission jumping constantly.

 Goals/standards are ridiculous … you can’t meet them if they keep changing. Doing the right thing here is wrong.”

“There was no guidance from leadership on the goal of specific missions.

 Role? I don’t know if I am a platoon sergeant, squad leader, or team leader … I still don’t know my role and we are58 days out from coming home.

 Info comes down, but we don’t have a good understanding of it, but then we have to take it, try to make sense of it, and try to give It to our Joes. I know it doesn’t make sense to them.

 We had a large white board in the TOC [tactical operations center] for the purpose of writing down changes to the mission but the NCO wouldn’t use it…instead he would keep the changes to himself.

 You never get positive feedback, but you will get an -ss-chewing if you screw up … They tell you what is not going to work.

 There is no feedback at all from leadership.

 Our platoon sergeant usually tells us that ‘You guys are s–t bags for making me look bad.’

 You want to throw 20 people into a 10 man tent and have us live like that for the past 9 months….REALLY.

 Leadership was never NOT breathing down my neck…poor planning on many issues.

 They use any sign of error to belittle you…focus is on failure to make themselves look better. Cruise control once we got here… it is nota problem until it is a catastrophe.

 Nobody advocates for us. They never listen to the experts…they don’t listen to the people that know. But I go toe-to-toe with them. I have to serve as the advocate. I get the blame though for everything that could go wrong.

 Leadership is giving us Uunior enlisted] no support. They let themselves be walked all over.

 They challenge us in unrealistic ways … good idea fairy.

 Leadership isn’t teaching you how to fish, but instead they are just giving you a fish.

 They are not engaged and have no concept about what is going on out there. They just don’t get involved.

 He [NCO] will send us to work while he stays back and watches TV.

 They dictate methodology, don’t innovate, and  don’t let others innovate either. Appearance means more than anything.

 There is one solution and it’s his solution.

 It’s their way or the highway.

 They tell us to do it ourselves all the time…It’s frustrating that when we do it ourselves they then come back and get mad at us because we didn’t do it their way even though they didn’t tell us how they wanted it done.

 All my guys are hurt. No one cares. A guy with fractured foot is still going out on missions.

 We survived a crash and all the NCO wanted to know was when we were going to be back to work.