Today's IHT had this piece on Soldier suicides. I thought about it a lot today, and wonder if this is an unavoidable result of expecting a relatively small volunteer force to conduct an excessively long campaign.
My thoughts, of course, are based on anecdotal experience, but the fact remains that the US has not called called upon soldiers to face such stress in the past 100 years. While the Doughboys of WWI, the GIs and Marines of WWII, Korea and Viet Nam may have seen much more direct combat action, there is a vast difference in the human dynamics of today's AVF GWOT GI and his predecessors.
1. The twin operations in Iraq & Afghanistan have gone on longer than WWI, WWII or Korea.
2. While we fought for seven years in VN, troops were assigned to combat tours primarily on an individual replacement basis.
Number 2 is the one that occupied my thoughts today. During VN, it was common to see one's comrades in arms leave the service. In fact, "ETSing" was a regular occurrence. Similarly, we came and went from the combat zone as individuals, and when not in RVN, our activities were focused on the job at hand, not refitting and retraining to redeploy. And, we enjoyed more than 12 to 14 months between deployments, and rarely served with the same people on subsequent combat tours. Further, the average time in combat with the soldiers in a unit was 6 months, as rotation dates were spread out across the year.
Today's AVF soldier cannot escape Iraq/Afghanistan. After about 6 months stateside, he and those he recently served with begin the refit/retrain cycle to deploy again - together. Thus, the soldier might very well serve five or six years, including multiple in theater tours of 12 to 14 months, with the same fellow soldiers the entire time. The bonding has got to be intense.
At first blush, this bonding might seem a good thing. Yet, I clearly remember that leaving my colleagues in VN was more difficult than any other PCSes, and I had been with them an average of six months. They were still in harm's way, and I was going to "safety". The relief of surviving the tour was offset by worries for those left behind. Further, there was no "shame" on those who simply served their contractual terms and returned to civilain life. The draft ensured a constant flow of new talent.
But today's soldier does not face the "normality" of people leaving the service as commonly as we did in VN. He knows that the Army is hard pressed to fill it's ranks and that retention is critical. Further, he is much more closely bound to those around him than we were in VN, and believe you me, we were tight. I can easily see where some Soldiers might wish to move on in their lives, yet feel as if doing so would be tantamount to deserting their buddies. In short, almost trapped with no honorable way out.
Iraq/Afghanistan is our first protracted campaign using an all volunteer force. There have been several signs of stress induced behavior. Marines killing themselves in significant numbers by reckless motorcycle riding. Spousal abuse. And, suicide. And, there really is no end on the immediate horizon. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the assumptions of the AVF, and address its real limitations, or more accurately, the limits it places on US power projection.