Morale among U.S. soldiers in Iraq has improved since the start of the war in 2003, and the soldiers' suicide rate dropped by more than half last year, according to an Army mental health survey released yesterday.
The Army's second Mental Health Advisory Team report paints an improving picture of how soldiers are handling their tours and how medical personnel are dealing with mental health problems. The team surveyed more than 2,000 soldiers from last August to October, and concluded that aggressive efforts to improve mental health care and to make soldiers aware of combat stresses have been successful.
A majority of soldiers fighting in Iraq, however, reported that morale is still a problem, with 54 percent saying that their unit morale is "low" or "very low," and only 9 percent reporting "high" or "very high" morale. During the first survey in late summer 2003, 72 percent of soldiers reported low morale.
The survey also reported that when soldiers were asked about their own morale -- as distinct from their unit's morale -- there was marked improvement from 2003 to 2004: 52 percent described their morale as low or very low in the first survey, and that number dropped to 36 percent in 2004.
"There have been substantial improvements made in the quality of life in theater, particularly access to air conditioned sleeping quarters, better facilities . . . better food and [dining facilities], and improved communication home through telephone and e-mail," according to the report, dated Jan. 30, 2005. "These likely help buffer the negative effects of combat."
The Army's Medical Command also has greatly increased the number of mental health professionals in the field. Acute or post-traumatic stress symptoms, for example, were still relatively prevalent problems -- affecting 10 percent of soldiers -- down from 15 percent in 2003.
Soldiers spoke frequently in the surveys about "the constant threat of serious harm or death," the anticipation of "never knowing when or where something bad would happen" and feeling like "sitting ducks" when on patrol because of roadside bombs, according to the report. More than 75 percent of the soldiers reported receiving incoming artillery, rocket or mortar attacks, and 38 percent said a roadside bomb or booby trap had exploded near them.
Lengthy deployment was the most commonly reported non-combat stressor, with 52 percent of soldiers reporting high or very high concern about the issue.
The suicide rate in 2003 for soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait was 18.5 per 100,000, and dropped to 8.5 per 100,000 in 2004. All of the nine confirmed suicides in 2004 in Iraq and Kuwait involved men who used a firearm, all but one were 30 or younger and seven involved low-ranking enlisted soldiers.
Also yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said a Pentagon report on Iraq that is expected to go to Congress this week will outline political and economic progress, but also state that "terrorists in Iraq remain effective, adaptable and intent on" waging highly lethal attacks on civilians and officials.
The report will conclude that "extremists continue to try to foment tension, ethnic strife and, indeed, even civil war between Sunnis and Shias," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld characterized the struggle in Iraq as primarily one between the Iraqi people and foreigners such as Jordanian-born insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi and other al Qaeda operatives who are inflicting "mindless carnage."
A supplement of the report will provide a detailed -- but classified -- assessment of the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, which Rumsfeld said now number 171,500 and range from "battle hardened" to "as green as grass."