Nov. 15, 2009 -- 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."
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?"
But Van Dahlen points to yet another major stress factor for U.S. troops in Afghanistan: the president's long-awaited decision on what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan and how to redefine the mission.
In the absence of a decision, morale can decline.
"It has nothing to do with the politics; it's, 'What do you expect of me? Is this mission valued? And are we going to move forward as we were trained or are we not? Are we going to keep pulling back?' That uncertainty -- it puts into the mix unease. And yes, that affects people psychologically.
U.S. Army officials point to a lack of mental health professionals in the field as part of the reason for the sagging morale, and they're trying to change that. They say they are on track to fulfill their goal of having one mental health worker for every 700 U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan by the end of the year.
President Obama Continues Deliberations on Afghanistan
In his weekly address Saturday, he made this promise, "We owe our troops prayerful, considered decisions about when and where we commit them to battle to protect our security and freedom, and we must fully support them when they are deployed.
"We also owe them the absolute assurance that they'll be safe here at home as they prepare for whatever mission may come. As commander-in-chief, I won't settle for anything less," he said.