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ARLINGTON, Va. — Faced with a Stars and Stripes survey that shows morale is low in almost half the units deployed to Iraq, defense leaders said that they might not be in the best position to gauge the spirits of deployed servicemembers, even as they continued to characterize morale in positive terms.

“I don’t know that I would be a good judge of morale,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Pentagon reporters Tuesday.

“I try to be a good judge, I try to go out there and talk to them and I do talk to a great many of the troops, and … they seem up, and recognizing the importance of the task they’re doing, and proud of what they’re doing.”

According to the Stripes survey, one-third of those questioned reported that their mission lacks clear definition, and characterize the Iraq mission as having little or no value. The findings may reflect the difficult living and dangerous environment faced by many troops in Iraq, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

“I don’t think we can ignore how tough conditions are in Iraq,” Myers said.

Yet while morale is “something we take very, very seriously,” Myers said he suspects field leaders might screen his first-hand contacts with troops.

“I always worry as a four-star [general, that] somebody’s always bringing us all the happy folks,” Myers said. “I want to see the folks who have complaints, and sometimes they won’t let them near me.”

Myers said that senior leaders are aware that they may not be getting the full picture, and use many sources to round out information.

“We know that [screening] phenomenon exists out there, and that’s why we have our tentacles out” to find out what kinds of reactions other visitors may be getting from troops, Myers said.

Myers cited Congressional delegations as one source of such “unfiltered” information, including five Republican senators who recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those senators, who spoke to Pentagon reporters Thursday, bristled at the notion that the troops they spoke to might have been prescreened for malcontents.

“I thought the morale was exceptionally high among all the Kentuckians I met with, and I met a lot of them,” said Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. “There’s no way all those people could have been programmed to give me an optimistic view if they didn’t hold one.”

“Of course we didn’t spend our time out in the camps looking at everyone,” Craig Thomas of Wyoming said. “They brought in some folks …. But I’ll tell you what, it’s awfully hard to go away from the leadership and the ones we did meet without knowing that these guys are committed.”

Regarding the effect of the Iraq deployment on retention, Rumsfeld said that “overall, the indicators remain good,” even though half the troops surveyed by Stripes indicated that they do not plan to re-enlist.

But the secretary did not discount the possibility of an oncoming wave of reservists leaving the force in the coming years.

“The effects of the stress on the force are unlikely to be felt immediately. They’re much more likely to be felt down the road,” Rumsfeld said. “So we need to be attentive to that.”

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