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Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Steve Cole reports:

The US Army and Marines are running head-on into a massive case of combat fatigue.

It's been known since World War II that the average human (or at least, the average American) starts to have mental and nervous problems after 200 days in combat. This is variously known as shell shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, soldier's heart, or combat fatigue. What it boils down to is that the soldier's ability to deal with the stress of combat is broken and cannot be repaired. Some people hit this wall earlier, and some later, but 200 is a good average.

Combat fatigue manifests itself in many ways. Usually, the soldier either freezes up, or goes a little jumpy. Neither is good, and neither is really able to function in combat without becoming a danger to their comrades.

The current War on Terror has put US soldiers and Marines through a lot of combat time, some of it more stressful than other times. Most people who have been in the military more than one tour have exceeded the 200-day barrier, and more and more are starting to show signs of it. The suicide rate has increased from 9 per 100,000 in 2001 to 23 per 100,000 in 2009. The number of troops taking anti-stress medications has reached 17 percent, and most of those are no longer able to safely function in combat. Even today, for every wounded soldier or Marine sent home from a war zone, another one is sent home too stressed out to safely function in combat, and three or four more are treated for stress in the war zone and kept with their units.

The Army and Marines have tried ways to lower the stress and extend the 200-day limit. These ways have worked, but no one knows how well or how much longer. Humans are not machines and do not fall down in rows. If seventeen percent of soldiers have exceeded the stress limit, no one knows if one more year will push that to 27 percent or 77 percent. Some troops have gone 800 days in combat (over nine years) without any sign of stress. This is all new territory, and has never happened in the history of the US. Even in World War II or the Civil War, few Americans spent more than 200 days actually being shot at. Many of the Germans, Russians, and British who spent more than 200 days in combat got wounded and taken out of combat (or were killed). Lots of them were found to be too stressed out to stay in combat, but were kept there anyway, and were killed or wounded because they were no longer effective.

Some of the things to reduce stress include air-conditioned quarters, good food, email, prompt diagnosis and treatment, and a two-week vacation in mid-tour. Recruits are screened before they are allowed to enlist, and those who the Army thinks will crack under stress are quietly told to find another career opportunity. There are also studies being made to see if someone who cracked can be healed enough (in a year or two) to send back to the war zone for another tour.