U.S. troops in Afghanistan report more mental issues

WASHINGTON — As fighting and casualties in Afghanistan's war reached an all-time high, U.S. soldiers and Marines there reported plunging morale and the highest rates of mental health problems in five years.

The grim statistics in a new Army report released Thursday dramatize the psychological cost of a military campaign that U.S. commanders and officials say has reversed the momentum of the Taliban insurgency.

Military doctors said the findings from a battlefield survey taken last summer were no surprise given the dramatic increase in combat, which troops reported was at its most intense level since officials began doing mental health analyses in 2003.

"There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat and seeing what war can do," Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, said at a Pentagon news conference.

Some 70 to 80 percent of troops surveyed for the report said they had seen a buddy killed, roughly half of soldiers and 56 percent of Marines said they'd killed an enemy fighter, and about two-thirds of troops said that a roadside bomb — the No. 1 weapon of insurgents — had gone off within 55 yards of them.

Most of those statistics were significantly higher than what troops said they experienced in the previous year in Afghanistan as well as during the 2007 surge of extra troops into the Iraq war, the report said.

About 20 percent of troops said they had suffered a psychological problem such as anxiety, severe stress or depression. Considering the intense levels of combat they are seeing, that number may actually be small, said Col. Paul Bliese, who led the last three survey teams to the battlefield, in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

"We would have expected to see a much larger increase in the mental health symptoms and a much larger decrease in morale... based on these incredibly high rates of exposure" to traumatic combat events, Bliese said.