David Wood, the respected military correspondent of Politics Daily, has written a shocking story of stress among soldiers in the U.S. Army. Based on the findings of an internal investigation commissioned by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Wood concludes “more soldiers are dying by drug overdose, accident, murder and suicide than in combat.” The number of active-duty fatalities traced to those four causes in 2009 was 345 — about a hundred more deaths than resulted from contact with the enemy in combat the same year. Wood cites several other findings from the investigation suggesting a high level of stress within the Army:
— Over 100,000 soldiers are using anti-anxiety drugs prescribed by doctors.
— An additional 40,000 soldiers are believed to be using illegal drugs.
— Suicide has become the number three cause of death among soldiers.
According to Wood’s reporting, a U.S. soldier dies by his or her own hand every 36 hours. The suicides aren’t always traceable to combat-related stress — a third of those committing suicide have never deployed — but there is extensive evidence that repeated combat deployments with insufficient recovery time in between is leading to elevated levels of violence, divorce and destructive risk-taking behavior. Drug abuse and drunken driving appear to be widespread, although the service lacks mechanisms for precisely tracking such behavior.
Such trends are hardly surprising after nine straight years of war in which ground forces are doing most of the fighting. However, it is a bit of a mystery how so much stress can co-exist in the same institution with high re-enlistment rates and low rates of desertion. High initial recruitment rates might be caused by a combination of patriotism, economic need and ignorance about the realities of Army life. But the fact that so many soldiers keep coming back to sign up for another tour suggests that one soldier’s stress is another’s salvation. Obviously, different people handle the stress of military service in divergent ways. Nonetheless, the findings of the investigation commissioned by Gen. Chiarelli raise questions about what current military campaigns are doing to our soldiers, and what kinds of problems those soldiers may bring home when the wars are finally done.
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