WASHINGTON Fierce combat and multiple deployments are taking a heavy psychological toll on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, where one in five fighters at lower ranks suffer mental health problems, the Army said on Friday.
The findings, released as President Barack Obama inched toward a decision to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, underscore the strain the wars there and in Iraq have had on the Army's front-line soldiers.
Rising suicide rates and a shooting spree last week by an Army psychiatrist at a base in Fort Hood, Texas, have raised new questions about the effects of combat stress and the state of the military's mental health system.
According to the Army's latest mental health survey, soldiers said unit morale in Afghanistan had declined as the frequency of fighting had increased, suggesting record combat deaths and injuries were taking a heavy psychological toll.
The survey found that some 21.4 percent of lower-ranking enlisted male soldiers, the group that generally experiences the most combat time, had mental health problems defined by Army medical teams as anxiety, depression or acute stress. That compares to 23.4 percent in 2007 and 10.4 percent in 2005.
Soldiers in Afghanistan with three or more deployments experienced higher rates of mental health and marital problems than those with fewer tours.
In contrast, the mental heath of U.S. forces in Iraq appeared to be improving as violence declined and the military prepared for a gradual withdrawal.
IMPROVEMENT IN IRAQ
The Army said it saw the lowest number of psychological problems among soldiers in Iraq since 2004. Some 13.3 percent of junior fighters there reported anxiety, depression or acute stress in 2009, down from 18.8 percent in 2007.
But the percentage of soldiers with marital problems has increased every year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Army reported. According to the survey, more than 16 percent of soldiers there reported plans to separate or divorce.
"Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face stress from multiple deployments," said Lieutenant General Eric Schoomaker, the Army Surgeon General. But he said soldiers were better prepared for the stress of combat than before.
To try to improve troops' morale and mental health in Afghanistan, Schoomaker said the Army was sending more mental health professionals to the combat zone.
The Army plans to send 60 to 65 additional mental health providers, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to Afghanistan later this year, from about 43 now.
The amount of "dwell time" soldiers are given at home between deployments is an important factor in their mental health, the Army found.
The Army's stated goal is to give soldiers two years between deployments, but this has been cut short for many and could be limited further if security in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorate and deployments are extended, officials said.
There are currently 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces in Afghanistan. Security permitting, the Pentagon says it plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from the current 120,000 to around 50,000 next August.
(Editing by Sue Pleming and Todd Eastham)