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Morale dips as some GIs say leaders are way off base

THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: SIGNS OF FRUSTRATION

August 25, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

YOUSIFIYA, IRAQ — In the dining hall of a U.S. Army post south of Baghdad, President Bush was on the wide-screen TV, giving a speech about the war in Iraq. The soldiers didn't look up from their chicken and mashed potatoes.

As military and political leaders prepare to deliver a progress report on the conflict to Congress next month, many soldiers are increasingly disdainful of the happy talk that they say commanders on the ground and White House officials are using in their discussions about the war.

And they're becoming vocal about their frustration over longer deployments and a taxing mission that keeps many living in dangerous and uncomfortably austere conditions. Some say two wars are being fought here: the one the enlisted men see, and the one that senior officers and politicians want the world to see.

"I don't see any progress. Just us getting killed," said Spc. Yvenson Tertulien, one of those in the dining hall in Yousifiya, 10 miles south of Baghdad, as Bush's speech aired last month. "I don't want to be here anymore."

Morale problems come as the Bush administration faces increasing pressure to begin a drawdown of troops.

The Times reported Friday that Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to advise Bush to reduce U.S. force levels next year by almost half because of the strain on the military.

But Pace on Friday said, "The story is wrong, it is speculative. I have not made or decided on any recommendations yet."

Plenty of troops remain upbeat about their mission in Iraq. At Patrol Base Shanghai, flanking the town of Rushdi Mullah south of Baghdad, Army Capt. Matt Dawson said residents used to shoot at troops but now visit them and offer ideas on improving security.

"For the 20-year-old kids here who have been shot at for 10 months in a row, the change is a tremendous feeling," Dawson said last week.

The Army cites reenlistment numbers as proof that morale remains high and says it expects to reach its retention goal of 62,200 for the fiscal year.

"On the 4th of July, we reenlisted 588 service members . . . in Baghdad. That has to be an indicator," said Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, who visits bases to gauge morale on behalf of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Based on his encounters, Hill said, he would rank morale at 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.

"Units that are having real success are units where troop morale is extremely high," Hill said. "Units that are sustaining losses, whether it be personnel losses, injuries or casualties -- those are organizations where morale might dip a bit."

The signs of frustration and of flagging morale are unmistakable, including blunt comments, online rants and the findings of surveys on military morale and suicides.

Sometimes the signs are to be found even in latrines. In the stalls at Baghdad's Camp Liberty, someone had posted Army help cards listing "nine signs of suicide." On one card, seven of the boxes had been checked.

"This occupation, this money pit, this smorgasbord of superfluous aggression is getting more hopeless and dismal by the second," a soldier in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, wrote in an Aug. 7 post on his blog, www.armyofdude.blogspot.com.

"The only person I know who believed Iraq was improving was killed by a sniper in May," the blogger, identified only as Alex from Frisco, Texas, said in a separate e-mail.

The Army's suicide rate is at its highest in 23 years: 17.3 per 100,000 troops, compared with 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003, the first year of the war. Of the 99 suicides last year, 27 occurred in Iraq.

The latest in a series of mental health surveys of troops in Iraq, released in May, says 45% of the 1,320 soldiers interviewed ranked morale in their unit as low or very low. Seven percent ranked it high or very high.

Mental health trends have worsened in the last two years, said Cindy Williams, an expert in military personnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These long and repeated deployments are causing acute mental stress," she said.

Most troops in Iraq expected 12-month deployments. Those were extended in May by three months for the troop buildup. Thousands already were on their second or third deployments.

The result is a fighting force that includes many soldiers who are worn down, just as Petraeus, who took command of the war six months ago, is asking them to adopt intense counterinsurgency tactics. Those strategies emphasize living "outside the wire," in military-speak, in outposts that put troops close to Iraqis. The theory is that people will come to trust the soldiers and share information needed to quell the violence.

But these posts often lack basic amenities such as running water, flush toilets, telephones and Internet access, which troops at the forward operating bases enjoy, along with food courts and athletic facilities. Being on the front lines, troops in outposts also face greater danger than those at bases.

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