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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

In Army Survey, Troops in Iraq Report Low Morale

By Thomas E. Ricks

A slim majority of Army soldiers in Iraq—52 percent—reported that their morale was low, and three-fourths of them said they felt poorly led by their officers, according to a survey taken at the end of the summer and released yesterday by the Army.

In addition, seven in 10 of those surveyed characterized the morale of their fellow soldiers as low or very low. The problems were most pronounced among lower-ranking troops and those in reserve units.

“Nearly 75 percent of the groups reported that their battalion-level command leadership was poor” and showed “a lack of concern” for their soldiers, said an Army report accompanying the data. “Unit cohesion was also reported to be low.”

The survey was part of a study initiated by the Army last summer after a number of suicides provoked concern about the mental well-being of soldiers in Iraq. The report faulted the Army for how it handled mental health problems, saying some counselors felt inadequately trained and cited problems in distribution of antidepressant medication and sleeping pills.

But perhaps the most surprising findings were the grim conclusions about troop morale, which indicate that Iraq is taking a toll that goes beyond casualty figures.

The Pentagon has been intensely worried that more frequent and longer combat tours will prompt more soldiers to get out of the Army rather than reenlist, especially if it means a second stint in Iraq or Afghanistan. Army insiders say it is likely that brigades from three divisions that served in Iraq over the past year—the 101st Airborne, the 3rd Infantry and the 4th Infantry—are likely to be sent back in 2005.

The Pentagon data on morale also appear to give official confirmation to a more informal survey conducted last summer by Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. That survey found about half of troops who filled out questionnaires described their unit’s morale as low and their training as insufficient, and said they did not plan to reenlist.

Col. Virgil Patterson, who oversaw the Army survey, said he was “somewhat surprised” by the findings on troop morale. He noted that when the survey was taken, soldiers were still feeling the effects of a brutally hot Iraqi summer, and that since then troops have better living conditions and are better able to communicate with their families.

“It was a pretty miserable set of circumstances at the time,” he said. “We speculate that all of those contributed to the factor of low morale.”

Patterson said he could not place the numbers in historical context because similar surveys have not been conducted before. “This is the first time we’ve ever gone into an active combat theater and asked soldiers how they are doing, so we have no comparative data,” he said. The study, conducted from late August through early October 2003, surveyed 756 Army soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, focusing on units that had engaged in combat.

Reaction to the Army’s survey was mixed among several experts.

Retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a Vietnam War veteran, said, “It’s not particularly surprising, especially given the frustrating nature of the combat they’re facing now, with patrols and bombs going off.”

But a senior Army commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed alarm.

“I’d be extremely worried by these numbers,” said the officer, who specializes in morale issues. Having more than half the soldiers surveyed say they are unhappy should “set off alarm bells,” the officer said.

Jonathan Shay, a Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, called it “a painful report to read.” Shay, who wrote two books on cohesion and leadership problems in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, said the report shows morale and cohesion were “seriously low” among troops in Iraq.

The report faulted the Army’s handling of mental health issues for troops and called for appointment of a “czar” to coordinate such services in Iraq and Kuwait. Patterson said a medical specialist would fill that new position next month.

In its findings on suicide, the report confirmed data previously released by the Army that the rate among soldiers in Iraq in 2003 was higher than for the Army generally, but lower than that of U.S. men of a similar age range. There were 23 confirmed suicides among Army troops in Iraq in 2003, for a rate of 15.6 per 100,000 soldiers, the report said. That compares with an Army average in recent years of 11.9, they said.

Col. Bruce Crow, an Army psychologist and an expert in suicide prevention who served as a member of the study group, said there were few clear patterns to the suicides, such as a persistent correlation with how long the troops had been deployed or what type of work they were doing. But he said soldiers who killed themselves generally tended to be younger, unmarried men.

Washington Post, March 26, 2004





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