Baghdad killings reflect U.S. Army stress crisis

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 12, 2009 at 11:36 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- The tragedy at Camp Liberty, near Baghdad, where an American soldier shot and killed five U.S. personnel and wounded three others, has been at least six years in the making.

Army Sgt. John Russell was arrested after the shooting deaths at a stress counseling center outside Baghdad. He was serving with the 54th Engineer Battalion in southern Iraq. Russell had shown significant signs of stress and had his weapon taken from him before being sent to the stress treatment center.

The Department of Defense is investigating, but U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the incident shows the need for the United States to increase efforts to relieve stress related to combat.

At a Pentagon news conference Monday, Mullen said, "It does speak to me about the need for us to redouble our efforts ... in terms of dealing with the stress, dealing with the whole issue of those kinds of things. And it also speaks to the issue of multiple deployments, increasing dwell time, all those things that we're focused on to try to ... relieve that stress."

There have been reports of a sharp rise in the number of suicides by service members; the rate is higher than that of the general population, and it's rising. Some 106 U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide in 2006. That rose to 115 in 2007 and 140 last year. By April, at least 48 soldiers had committed suicide this year. That puts 2009 on track to be the deadliest year yet since statistics were published on Army suicides for the first time in 1980. And suicide rates are trending upward in the U.S. Marines, Navy and Air Force too.

The first thing that needs to be said is that whenever any nation goes to war, either by conscious choice or because it has been attacked in an unprovoked aggression, tragedies and deaths through accidents or stress are going to happen. War is an exceptionally chaotic and high-stress environment, whether it is for soldiers crouching in a trench or foxhole to escape an artillery bombardment or on patrols or defensive duty, waiting for the next improvised explosive device to go off or mortar bombardment to target their positions.

The second point is that when controversial Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and their team ran the Pentagon, they received a great deal of criticism for allegedly neglecting the well-being of American combat soldiers. The U.S. Army medical system, including its showcase institution of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was the subject of embarrassing press exposes that led current Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor, to fire his secretary of the Army and the head of Walter Reed. When current President Barack Obama took office, he also acknowledged the need to prioritize post-combat and post-service care for U.S. military veterans by appointing a widely admired and respected former Army chief of staff, four-star Gen. Eric Shinseki, as the Cabinet-level head of the Veterans Affairs Department.

The underlying cause of the growing stress on U.S. soldiers and Marines and their families has been the burden of dual and simultaneous ongoing wars since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Rumsfeld and his planners never dreamed that 130,000 to 160,000 U.S. troops would be tied down in Baghdad over the next six years fighting an ongoing Sunni Muslim insurgency. The security situation in Iraq improved tremendously from January 2006 to January 2007 after Gates appointed Gen. David Petraeus to run operations there. However, since President Obama confirmed his plans to phase down U.S. troop levels in Iraq over the next year and a half to 30,000 troops, levels of violence, especially through suicide bombers, have been rising there again. And Obama has been moving to fulfill his campaign pledge to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

However, all these commitments that were made by Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have been imposed on a small, all-professional U.S. military force backed by the volunteer, state-based National Guard units, and the burden of extended and additional combat rotations has fallen disproportionately hard on the front-line soldiers and National Guard volunteer force.

This dilemma is as old as war. Front-line combat units in World War II knew it well. But that does not make it fair, easy or right. Nor does it make these increasing pressures sustainable in the long term.

Defense Secretary Gates has over the past two and half years earned an excellent record for his concern and responsibility for wounded soldiers and for troops and veterans suffering from wounds and stress. But that doesn't mean the problem isn't still there -- and given the ongoing conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it looks likely to get worse.

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