Mideast edition, Saturday, May 5, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — Fewer than half of soldiers and Marines polled in Iraq would report a buddy for unethical behavior, according to a combat mental health study released Friday by the Defense Department.

The latest Mental Health Advisory Team survey queried 1,320 soldiers and 447 Marines anonymously from August to October 2006, the fourth in a series of studies since 2003 to assess the mental health and well-being of deployed forces.

It is the first time the survey has included Marines and the first to ask questions concerning combat ethics, Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command and acting Army surgeon general, told Pentagon reporters during a Friday press briefing.

Ethics questions were included while the study was under way at the request of Army Gen. George Casey, then-commander of Multi-National Forces — Iraq, according to Rear Adm. Richard Jeffries, Medical Officer of the Marine Corps, who also attended the briefing.

Just 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of the Marines participating believe that noncombatants should be treated with “dignity and respect,” according to the report.

One servicemember in 10 admitted to hitting or kicking a civilian, or destroying noncombatant property without justification.

More than one-third also felt that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow soldier or Marine in the survey, which is dated Nov. 17, 2006, but was not publicly released until Friday.

Asked about her concerns over the reluctance of soldiers to report their buddies for crimes, and apparent willingness to see torture used against enemies, Pollock said, “these men and women are seeing their friends injured. These thoughts are natural.”

What is important, Pollock said, is that “they’re not acting on these thoughts.”

In the survey, 62 percent of soldiers and 66 percent of Marines reported knowing someone who had been seriously injured or killed, or that a member of their team had become a combat casualty.

The researchers passed out anonymous questionnaires and conducted interviews with focus groups among troops involved in combat operations, said Army Col. Carl Castro, Mental Health Advisory Team-IV team leader.

The more frequently servicemembers are deployed, and the longer they stay on the battlefield, the more likely they are to report losing not only their moral compass, but their mental well-being, researchers found.

The survey found that one-third of troops in combat report feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

“But not all [servicemembers] are at equal risk,” Pollock said. “Length of combat tours is the main determinant” for whether or not a servicemember will suffer from mental health issues.

Soldiers who deployed for more than six months, or had deployed multiple times, were more likely to screen positive for a mental health issue than other soldiers.

Because Marines typically deploy for just seven months compared to the Army’s yearlong tours, soldiers report experiencing mental health problems at a higher rate, Pollock said.

“The Army is spread thin,” and shorter deployments aren’t an option at this point, Pollock said.

In fact, the Army recently announced that all combat tours in the Middle East will be extended from one year to 15 months.

Pollock said that that decision was made in part to address the report’s recommendation to extend at-home “dwell time,” so soldiers can recover between combat tours.

As part of their recommendations, the survey’s researchers said soldiers should remain at home base for 18 to 36 months to recover from the stress of the battle.

The Army’s current goal, with the 15- month deployments in place, is for active- duty troops to have a one-year break between deployments.

Deployment length was directly linked to morale problems in the Army, according to the report.

“Soldier morale was lower than Marine morale,” Pollock said.

Full report(PDF)Click here

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