Resilient, tough, experienced, professional. The Army uses words like these to describe U.S. soldiers in the post-9/11 era who have had to adapt to the new normal of repeat combat tours.
The Army’s No. 2 officer, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said on a visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord this spring that the “high up-tempo” of soldiers going on multiple overseas missions was challenging but had left the military with a “highly trained and incredibly resilient force.”
The same words apply to the spouses, children and other loved ones of oft-deployed troops. Thousands of families in the South Sound are now coping with the absence of soldiers who have gone to do dangerous work in Afghanistan for the better part of a year.
Tommie Polizzotti is one such spouse. She will spend Mother’s Day today without her husband around to make pancake breakfast for their four kids.
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“It takes a special woman,” said Maj. Dave Polizzotti, a Lewis-McChord officer on his third deployment. “She is a smart, strong, capable wife.”
The bulk of America’s warfighting is still done by less seasoned soldiers on their first or second tours.
About 10 percent of the 2.4 million service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan deployed three or more times. The Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade sent to Afghanistan this winter has about 3,900 soldiers, of whom about 380 had served on at least three previous tours, according to Army data released to The News Tribune.
But the growing ranks of multiple-deployment soldiers and their families are more exposed to the problems that can affect all service members. They face a greater likelihood of a serious combat-related head injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.
In another sign of strain, the Army’s latest annual suicide study showed seasoned veterans taking their own lives more often. In the past, soldiers who had never deployed or deployed only once were far more likely to commit suicide. They represented about 75 percent of Army suicides in the past; by last year, that number had dropped to 61 percent.
The perpetual cycle of coming and going also has exacted a hard toll on marriages. The number of military divorces is climbing and surpassing the civilian rate, countering research from early in the Iraq War that suggested soldiers who deployed tended to have more resilient marriages. The Pentagon’s latest reports show the annual military divorce rate at 3.7 percent – its highest point since 1999 and greater than the 3.5 percent civilian rate. That means 3.7 percent of all military marriages end in divorce in any given year.
In southern Afghanistan, where Lewis-McChord soldiers are currently serving, Maj. Victor Delacancela recently finished a year’s duty running a combat stress clinic in Zabul province. His team advised soldiers who had deployed several times to re-create whatever coping skills worked for them in the past. For some, that means calling home frequently, while others give their spouses more space to run their households independently.
Some find the balance to sustain their relationships. Others do not.
“A good number of soldiers are having their spouse calling them and saying, ‘I’m booking; I can’t take this anymore,’” Delacancela said.
A New England Journal of Medicine study in 2010 found that wives of soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were nearly 20 percent more likely to have mental health problems than wives of soldiers who stayed home.
The longer the soldiers were gone, the greater the odds a spouse would be diagnosed with depression, the study found.
Army leaders are aware of the stress repeated deployments can place on a soldier and a military family.
“For over a decade, nearly every leader and soldier serving in our Army has lived in a near constant state of anticipation – whether anticipating an upcoming deployment, anticipating the next mission or convoy, or anticipating the challenges of returning home,” wrote former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli in a comprehensive study on the health of the Army released early this year.
“The prolonged stress and strain on them and their families must be effectively addressed,” Chiarelli added.
But as long as the nation is at war, the military can’t pledge to shield a service member from a combat tour. They’re working to shorten the length of deployments – they dropped from one year to nine months as of this year – and to build up resiliency among soldiers accustomed to fighting overseas every other year.
War-tested veterans are more likely than less experienced soldiers to seek help for behavioral health resources, according to a recent mental health survey carried out among troops in Afghanistan in 2010.
But concerns about service members snapping under prolonged exposure to hard conditions and hard fighting were raised this spring after a rampage in southern Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a decorated veteran with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is charged with murdering 17 Afghan villagers on March 11. He had a wife and two children back home in Lake Tapps and was reportedly not eager to go on his fourth deployment.
It’s too simplistic, however, to connect sensational war crimes with multiple overseas tours. The leader of the so-called Stryker “kill team” tried for the 2010 slayings of three Afghan civilians was a three-tour combat veteran, but the other three who were convicted in the homicide cases were impressionable younger soldiers on their first tour.
ON THE BATTLEFIELD
The Army manages stress on the battlefield with support personnel such as psychologists and chaplains. Commanders play a role, too, in keeping up their soldiers’ morale.
In Afghanistan this year, Army I Corps Command Sgt. Major John Troxell from Lewis-McChord visited an austere base on the Pakistan border. He found soldiers in surprisingly good spirits despite their hard assignments patrolling a hostile environment.
Troxell learned that their commanders expected them to do 10 days of hard work on patrols and then consistently gave them three days of down time to rest and catch up with their families.
Those promised days of rest provided enough incentive to carry the soldiers through the long days and nights sleeping on the ground and eating packaged meals, Troxell said.
Delacancela’s team in Zabul included two enlisted behavioral health specialists trained to coach soldiers on how to talk through problems. They hung a sign on their door that read, “Don’t knock, come in,” and traveled to bases wherever service members were killed. They listened to soldiers share memories about fallen comrades.
They offered one-on-one classes to teach coping techniques and encouraged the troops to have their spouses make similar efforts at home. It’s not uncommon to see self-improvement books about relationships, such as “The Five Love Languages,” lying around Army bases in Afghanistan.
“What we talk about a lot is not post-traumatic stress. It’s post-traumatic growth,” Delacancela said. “A lot of guys with multiple deployments will show signs of post-traumatic stress; with a little work, they can experience a little growth.”
Army chaplain Lt. Col. David Shoffner remembers a wave of divorces that followed his first deployment to Iraq in 2003-04. Back then, combat was a new experience for soldiers who signed up in peacetime and did not anticipate a period of repeated deployments to battle hard-to-find insurgents.
Today, Shoffner says the soldiers who sign up and re-enlist expect a different lifestyle, one based on the probability that they’ll fight overseas several times in their careers.
“Nowadays most of the soldiers we re-enlist are soldiers who enlisted after 9/11,” said Shoffner, the deputy chaplain for Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. “They don’t know what the Army was like before 9/11.”
By anecdotal experience, military chaplains and counselors say younger soldiers’ marriages are more likely to break because of deployments than ones that have been tested by several yearlong missions.
“Once you’ve gone through that second deployment, you come to expect that this is a way for life,” said Sgt. 1st Class Cliff Magness of I Corps.
He’s a retention noncommissioned officer for I Corps – his job is to keep tried-and-true soldiers wearing the uniform – and he says probable deployments are not among the concerns preventing soldiers from re-enlisting these days. The end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan offer some assurances that the pace of the fighting will decline, he said.
“We finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Magness said. “They’re not so worried about two or three more deployments. They’re thinking there’s maybe one more.”
Still, Magness knows firsthand the strain that repeat overseas tours can put on family relationships. His 18-year marriage ended after the last of his four deployments. He and his wife thought they knew what worked for them after his previous tours, but too much had changed by the time he returned to the states in October.
“Sometimes the divorce isn’t an event, it’s just something that happens,” he said. “You’re gone so much you don’t know the person anymore.”
This story was reported in Qalat and Kabul, Afghanistan, and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.