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Army says troop morale is down in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Morale has fallen among soldiers in Afghanistan, where troops are seeing record violence in the 8-year-old war, while those in Iraq show much improved mental health amid much lower violence, the Army said Friday.

It was the first time since 2004 that soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase. Self-inflicted deaths in Afghanistan were on track to go up this year.

Though findings of two new battlefield surveys are similar in several ways to the last ones taken in 2007, they come at a time of intense scrutiny on Afghanistan as President Barack Obama struggles to craft a new war strategy and planned troop buildup. There is also new focus on the mental health of the force since a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last week in which an Army psychiatrist is charged with killing 13 people.

Both surveys showed that soldiers on their third or fourth tours of duty had lower morale and more mental health problems than those with fewer deployments. And an increasing number of troops are having problems with their marriages.

The new survey on Afghanistan found instances of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at about the same as they were in 2007 but double 2005’s cases. That was 21.4 percent in 2009, 23.4 percent in 2007 and 10.4 percent in 2005.

That compares to a lower 13.3 percent in Iraq, down from 18.8 percent in 2007 and 22 percent in 2006.

Surveys have been done every year in Iraq, but were only done during three years in Afghanistan.

Details of the survey

The Afghan report also found a shortage of mental health workers to help soldiers who needed it, partly because of the buildup Obama started this year with the dispatch of more than 20,000 extra troops.

Efforts to get more health workers to Afghanistan were made a little harder by last week’s shooting. The psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder was slated to go to Afghanistan. Some of the dead and wounded also were to have deployed there to bolster psychological services for soldiers.

Still, officials told a Pentagon news conference that they expect to meet their goal next month of having one mental health worker for every 700 troops — workers that include psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and so on. There were 43 in Afghanistan at the time of the survey, while 103 were deemed needed.

The new Afghanistan survey found that individual soldier morale was about the same as previous studies, but that unit morale rates were significantly lower.

In Iraq, some 2,400 soldiers in randomly selected platoons filled out surveys from December 2008 through March 2009, and a mental health assessment team went to the warfront for a month starting in late February to analyze the results and hold interviews and focus groups. In Afghanistan, more than 1,500 troops in more than 50 platoons filled out the surveys from April to June, and the assessment team went through the same process from May through June.

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