After nine years of war, the U.S. Army is showing signs of stress because of repeated deployments and inadequate support for soldiers when they return, according to a blunt internal report released today. It blasts the Army's leadership for failing to recognize the problem.
The figures in recent years are staggering.
The number of soldiers committing suicide has increased since 2004, surpassing civilian rates in 2008. Use of prescription drugs has tripled in the past five years; prescription amphetamines use has doubled between 2006 and 2009. One third of soldiers take at least one prescription drug and 14 percent of soldiers are on some form of powerful painkiller.
Crime is rising every year as well. Each year has seen an increase of 5,000 misdemeanors over the previous year, meaning soldiers are expected to commit around 55,000 such crimes in 2010. Sexual offenses have tripled since 2003. Domestic abuse is up 177 percent in the past six years.
Non-combat deaths among the force have increased steadily since 2001 to the point where the report says that in 2009 more soldiers died as a result of accidents and "high risk behavior" than at war.
"Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy," the report says.
The scathing assessment, commissioned by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, blames Army leadership for failing to realize the deteriorating trend.
"The Army realized too late that there was a very serious problem," it says.
The study also faults Army leaders for failing to enforce discipline after violations, leading to repeat offenders whose problems spiral out of control.
"Soldiers are taking more and more risks, and gaps in policies are allowing it to happen. Ultimately, it poses the question: 'Where has the Army's leadership in garrison gone?'" the report asks, using the term for the period when soldiers are stationed at home between deployments.
While noting that Army service, particularly during a time of war when a soldier is almost sure to see combat, attracts individuals more prone to what it terms high-risk behavior, the study says the problems are exacerbated by inadequate leadership and screening of troops. It suggests leaders are focusing only on preparing soldiers for their next deployment too quickly without allowing them sufficient time to reset after time in war.
In fact, the report says the Army's current ratio of one year deployed and two at home is inadequate, suggesting that soldiers need at least three years at home before going off again to war to properly prepare.
The report suggests that the increasing suicide rates in the Army are due in part to inadequate attention from leaders and fellow soldiers. Nearly a third are the result of drug or alcohol abuse.
Of 1,038 non-combat soldier deaths between 2006 and 2009, the report found that 88 percent were due to high-risk behavior. Of that figure, 46 percent involved drug or alcohol use at the time of death and 20 percent were due to overdose.
Nearly 80 percent of Army suicides take place in the United States, most typically among married 23-year-old, caucasian, junior-enlisted males who have deployed at least once, according to the study.
The military has fought for years against the stigma of combat stress injuries like post traumatic stress disorder, yet the study accuses Army leaders of neglecting to recognize the symptoms of a potential suicide victim. It notes that according to a separate survey an estimated 13 percent of the Army suffered from PTSD, while only 9 percent of suicide deaths in recent years had been diagnosed with PTSD, suggesting many of the victims had fallen through the cracks.
In many cases, the report says, suicides were only discovered weeks after they occurred. In one example cited in the report, a soldier was discovered five weeks after he had taken his life only after his landlord complained that the rent had not been received.
"It is often only in hindsight (post mortem) that we see indications of undocumented high-risk behavior that provided opportunity for life-saving intervention," the study says.
"In an organization that prides itself on never leaving a soldier behind, this sobering example speaks to the breakdown of leadership in garrison, which appears to be worsening as the requirements of prolonged conflict slowly erode the essential attributes that have defined the Army for generation," it adds.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
The study found that substance abuse strongly correlates to suicides and criminal acts, including violence, by soldiers. Again, it faults the Army for failing to adequately test for drug use.
However, it's what it calls the "pervasive climate of prescription medication use in the Army" that is of most concern to the study's authors.
"As we continue to wage war on several fronts, data would suggest we are becoming more dependent on pharmaceuticals to sustain the force. In fact, anecdotal information suggests that the force is becoming increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs," it says.
Soldiers are often prescribed drugs that can be filled "as needed" without an expiration date, which allows them to abuse the drugs even if they are not needed. The study suggests this policy also contributes to the sale of prescription drugs among the force by soldiers with open-ended prescriptions.
Illegal drug users are still of concern, particularly those that are repeat and serial offenders who have been allowed to remain in the Army. According to the study if a soldier tests positive for a controlled substance twice, there is a 90 percent chance he or she will test positive at least once more.
The study says one soldier even tested positive 17 times and had been allowed to remain in the Army.
The report documents disturbing increases of crime by soldiers. Additionally, many crimes go unreported to law enforcement and others do not face any disciplinary action within the Army.
"Crime is on the rise and discipline is seemingly going unchecked. In fact, approximately 1,054 soldiers who have committed two or more felony offenses are still serving in the Army today," the study says.
In 2009 alone, 15,074 cases of soldier misconduct faced no known disciplinary or corrective action, or referral to law enforcement, it found. Only a fraction of domestic abuse cases were referred to law enforcement.
In one tragic case cited in the report, a soldier was accused of rape in 2000 and 2003, but a civilian law enforcement investigation could not provide enough evidence to prove the crimes occurred as alleged. In 2004 the same soldier was accused of raping three females and again in 2005 for indecent assault and indecent exposure. He was finally convicted of the 2004 rapes.
"When known criminals are not removed from the force, it sends a message to the rest of the soldiers in the unit that high-risk behavior, such as drug use, is acceptable," the report says.
The study found an overlap in destructive behavior by some solders. When it cross referenced over 10,000 cases of serial drug users with 2,405 alleged serial criminal offenders since 2001, it fond 1,675 soldiers appeared on both lists.
Ultimately, the report lays blame at the feet of Army leadership for failing to identify troubled soldiers and discipline those who commit crimes, suggesting that doing so only begets more problems.
"Soldiers who are prone to practice high-risk behavior have little reason to question consequence, as they see there will likely be none," the study says.
Still, the Army is also at war and faces the challenge of sending soldiers to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The study says "too many" soldiers entered the service on waivers and that "these soldiers may be among a critical mass that engages in high risk behavior and may commit suicide."
"These data suggest either commanders lack awareness of these increasing problems or they are ignoring risk factors to retain soldiers to maintain unit deployment strength. In either case the results are tragic," it says.