Troop Morale Drops in Afghanistan, Army Study Says

As President Obama weighs his decision about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, another factor has come into play, the declining morale of U.S. troops there.

It has been eight years since the first U.S. combat troops put boots on the ground in Afghanistan and many of them have since been deployed three, four or even five times.

The strain is taking its toll. According to a recent report by the U.S. Army, soldiers' perception of their units' morale has dramatically decreased over the past two years.

In 2007, the percentage of soldiers who said their units' morale was high, was 10.2 percent. In 2009, only 5.7 percent reported high morale.

Barbara Van Dahlen is a psychologist and founder of Give an Hour, an organization that provides free mental health services to service members and their families.

"We are seeing the wear and tear on this military population, absolutely," Van Dahlan says.

"They're tired. That's what people kind of say over and over again," she says. "You meet with families, you talk with people on base, they're tired. They're still doing their job. They're still dedicated to the mission, but they're tired."

Is Afghanistan Impossible for Obama?

The war in Afghanistan now rivals the Revolutionary War and Vietnam as the longest American war in history, but military experts say the war in Afghanistan is different in one key way.

Unlike the other long wars, this one is being fought by an all-volunteer force. That means it's the same group of people who keep going back and doing the job.

Bill Nash is a retired major general who led forces in Bosnia in the 1990s. "That's where the great stress comes from," Nash says. "And that's a reflection of a small military force and that small force being a minuscule fraction of the population of the nation. So the burdens are not shared, and unshared burdens bring about stress."

Reports of Divorce and Suicide Up Among Soldiers

The Army's survey says that morale is actually up among soldiers serving in Iraq, but overall military rates of divorce and suicide are on the rise.

Barbara Van Dahlen says the two are linked.

"The increase in suicide that we've seen in the military, often the concrete issue that is pointed to is a failure in a relationship. That was sort of the final thing that pushed the individual over the edge," she says. "Again it's a chronic strain on the system and the issue isn't from where I stand, OK, well then everyone should go home. It's OK. Let's recognize this, and we need to get the supports we need to have in place so that we help these folks deal with what is an understandable strain after the lengthy time they've been there."

The morale report comes on the heels of a tough week for the U.S. military. President Obama attended a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas, to honor the lives lost in the shooting Nov. 5.

Yesterday, several of the 13 soldiers killed by Army psychiatrist Nadal Hassan, were buried. Hasan had treated soldiers with post-traumatic stress for years, and investigators have raised questions about the effect of that on Hassan's own psyche.

"If something good can come out of that," says Barbara Van Dahlen, "it will be greater awareness that these issues are there, they're real, what do we need to do take care of them?"

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