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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Unrelenting strain of war risks U.S. troops health, readiness

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

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 yesterday 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," General 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 nondeployed units and from prepositioned 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 yesterday's hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

General 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.

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.

Some of that concern could be mitigated today. President Bush plans to announce that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year's troop buildup, administration officials said yesterday.

The move is in response to intense pressure from service commanders who have expressed anxiety about the toll of long deployments on their soldiers. President Bush will announce the decision during a national speech in which aides said he will also embrace General Petraeus' plan to indefinitely suspend a drawdown of forces.

The Pentagon 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 as any potential outbreaks in places such as North Korea, Iran, Lebanon, or China.

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.

Some 27 percent of soldiers on their third or fourth combat tours suffered anxiety, depression, postcombat 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 war front to augment the uniformed corps.

The death and destruction continued in Baghdad yesterday as errant mortar shells slammed into houses and a funeral tent, leaving three children among the dead during clashes in a Shiite militia stronghold under siege by American and Iraqi forces on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. capture of the capital.

The fighting came as the U.S. military announced the deaths of five more soldiers. That raised the number of American troop deaths to 17 since Sunday.



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