PAULINE JELINEK, AP, April 9, 2008
WASHINGTON - U.S. soldiers are committing suicide at record levels, young officers are abandoning their military careers, and the heavy use of forces in Iraq has made it harder for the military to fight conflicts that could arise elsewhere.
Unprecedented strains on the nation's all-volunteer military are threatening the health and readiness of the troops.
While the spotlight Wednesday was on congressional hearings with the U.S. ambassador and commanding general for Iraq, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody was in another hearing room explaining how troops and their families are being taxed by long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prospect of future years of conflict in the global war on terror.
"That marathon has become an enduring relay and our soldiers continue to run — and at the double time," Cody said. "Does this exhaust the body and mind of those in the race, and those who are ever present on the sidelines, cheering their every step? Yes. Has it broken the will of the soldier? No."
And it's not just the people that are facing strains.
Military depots have been working in high gear to repair or rebuild hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment — from radios to vehicles to weapons — that are being overused and worn out in harsh battlefield conditions. The Defense Department has asked for $46.5 billion in this year's war budget to repair and replace equipment damaged or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both the Army and Marine Corps have been forced to take equipment from non-deployed units and from pre-positioned stocks to meet needs of those in combat — meaning troops at home can't train on the equipment.
National Guard units have only an average of 61 percent of the equipment needed to be ready for disasters or attacks on the U.S., Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton lamented at Wednesday's hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
Cody and his Marine counterpart, Gen. Robert Magnus, told the committee they're not sure their forces could handle a new conflict if one came along.
The Pentagon and Congress have worked in recent years to increase funding, bolster support programs for families, improve care for soldiers and Marines and increase the size of both forces to reduce the strain. Cody said the U.S. must continue the investment, continue to support its armed forces and have an "open and honest discussion" about the size of military that is needed for today's demands.
An annual Pentagon report this year found there was a significant risk that the U.S. military could not quickly and fully respond to another outbreak elsewhere in the world. The classified risk assessment concluded that long battlefield tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with persistent terrorist activity and other threats, are to blame.
The review grades the armed services' ability to meet the demands of the nation's military strategy — which would include fighting the current wars as well any potential outbreaks in places such as North Korea, Iran, Lebanon or China.
Similarly, a 400-page January report by the independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves found the force isn't ready for a catastrophic chemical, biological or nuclear attack on this country, and National Guard forces don't have the equipment or training they need for the job.
Strain on individuals has been repeatedly documented.
It contributes to the difficulty in getting other Americans to join the volunteer military. The Army struggles to find enough recruits each year and to keep career soldiers.
Thousands more troops each year struggle with mental health problems because of the combat they've seen. The lengthening of duty tours to 15 months from 12 a year ago also has been blamed for problems as has the fact that soldiers are being sent back for two, three or more times.
President Bush will announce on Thursday that the length of tours will go back to 12 months for Army units heading to war after Aug. 1, defense officials said Wednesday.
Some 27 percent of soldiers on their third or fourth combat tours suffered anxiety, depression, post-combat stress and other problems, according to an Army survey released last month. That compared with 12 percent among those on their first tour.
In Afghanistan a range of mental health problems increased, and 11.4 percent of those surveyed reported suffering from depression.
Medical professionals themselves are burning out and said in the survey that they need more help to treat the troops. The report also recommended longer home time between deployments and more focused suicide-prevention training. It said civilian psychologists and other behavioral health professionals should be sent to the warfront to augment the uniformed corps.
Though separate data reported on divorce rates appeared to be holding steady last year, soldiers say they are having more problem with their marriages due to the long and repeated separations.
As many as 121 troops committed suicide in 2007, an increase of some 20 percent over 2006, according to preliminary figures released in January.
If all are confirmed that would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch the war in Afghanistan.