Attrition: An Army of Survivors


January 26, 2008: The Department of Defense met its recruiting goals for December, 2007, as it has nearly every month since the war on terror began after September 11, 2001. Last month, nearly 17,000 new recruits joined the active duty and reserve components. All the media talk of economic recession helps, as does the decline in stories about troops dying in Afghanistan or Iraq. Combat casualties were way down in December, and many (of the few)media stories coming out of Iraq are about U.S. success. Re-enlistment rates continue to be above average, which takes some of the pressure off the recruiters. Historically, the recruiters biggest problem has been a strong economy.

But the army has lowered its recruiting standards a bit in the last few years, while it also upgraded its screening and training methods. Thus quantity and quality have been maintained. But it's known from past experience that higher quality (in terms of test scores and skills) troops are better able to survive combat.

These days, survival is easier, but that leads to a problem with the long term effects of multiple combat tours. The army is facing an unprecedented situation. Never before has it had so many troops who have experienced so many days of combat. In the past (Vietnam, World War II) casualties were several times higher. but combat was not as prolonged. Thus few troops lasted 200 or more days in combat. During World War II, it was found that 200 days was the average combat exposure a soldier suffered before starting to experience debilitating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The patterns of combat were different than during World War II. For example, the bulk of the troops in Europe went in after June 6, 1944. The fighting in Europe ended eleven months later. In the Pacific, the fighting tended to be episodic. A few months of combat were followed by many months of preparing for the next island invasion or battle. In Vietnam, not a lot of people went back for multiple tours, and those who did spend a year with a combat unit, spent less time incombat than they would in Iraq. Even during Vietnam, it was noted that many of those who were in combat for 200 or more days, did get a little punchy.

In Iraq, army combat troops often get 200 days of combat in one 12 month tour, which is more than their grandfathers got during all of World War II. And some troops are returning for a third tour in Iraq, which is now fifteen months. The army has found ways to avoid the onset of PTSD (better accommodations, email contact with home, prompt treatment for PTSD), but many troops are headed for uncharted territory, and an unprecedented amount of time in combat. Thusnew programs to spot PTSD as early as possible, and new treatments as well.

Then there's the money factor. Combat pay and re-enlistment bonuses for combat troops provides a temptation to ignore PTSD symptoms and stay in a combat job. There are plenty of non-combat jobs you can transfer to, and for many of those, there are also large re-enlistment bonuses. This problem largely affects senior NCOs, who take a decade or more to develop, and provide essential combat leadership. Given the experience and maturity of these men, problems are not expected. But the army and marines have to keep a close watch, because it's a unique situation and no one is sure how it will all turn out.


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