WASHINGTON — After nine years of war, it’s clear the nation will be engaged in conflict for some time to come, but less evident is what effect that long-term combat will have on servicemembers and their families, the Army chief of staff said today.
“We have to try to figure out the cumulative effects — how they will manifest themselves after nine years of war,” Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said. “We have to work our way through that.”
Speaking at the 2010 Defense Forum here, Casey and his wife, Sheila, expressed their concern for servicemembers and families who are struggling with the stress and demands of nearly a decade of war.
America is in a period of “persistent conflict,” Casey noted.
“Even though we’ve had some success in Iraq and have drawn down to about 50,000 American men and women there, the war isn’t over,” he said. “We’re at war with a global extremist terrorist network that attacked us on our soil. We believe this is a long-term ideological struggle.”
Global trends are exacerbating the situation rather than ameliorating it, Casey said. Globalization, for instance, has created “have and have-not” cultures that increasingly are susceptible to recruitment from terrorist organizations. Also, populations in some countries will double in the next decade, resulting in an increased demand for limited resources. Casey said he’s most concerned with weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands and safe havens for terrorist organizations. Terrorists have tried to attack Americans on U.S. soil twice since Christmas, he noted.
These factors all add up to a sustained conflict, “maybe not in the same scope, but a large number of soldiers deployed in harm’s way for a while,” Casey said.
At the same time, the military still is dealing with the impact the past nine years of war have had on troops and their families, he said, citing some statistics to drive the point home. More than 3,200 soldiers have died, leaving more than 20,000 family members behind. More than 27,000 soldiers have been wounded, with 7,500 of those soldiers severely wounded and requiring long-term care. Since 2000, the Army has diagnosed about 100,000 soldiers with traumatic brain injury, and since 2003, about 25,000 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
“I honestly think those numbers are probably low,” the general said. “We wrestle hard with reducing the stigma of seeking care.”
Casey called for better support of soldiers to build their resilience. It takes 24 to 36 months to recover from a combat deployment, he said, citing a recent study. Yet, the Army is deploying soldiers at a rate of one year deployed and one year at home. The Army’s objective is to have two years at home between deployments, but that won’t come to fruition till 2012.
“We’re still a way from meeting that objective,” he acknowledged. The best-case scenario, he added, would be to give soldiers three years at home.
A rapid deployment pace and the current lack of “dwell time” at home have accelerated the cumulative effects of war, Casey said, and his wife agreed.
“Our soldiers are stretched and they’re stressed,” Mrs. Casey said. “And parents, spouses and children of our troops are all feeling the stress.”
Mrs. Casey said she’s concerned for the family unit, especially young families who don’t have enough time to build the bonds that will sustain them, but yet are battered with continual deployments.
“I worry about the long-term effect this is having on our children,” she said.
Mrs. Casey recalled speaking with a woman a few years back. The woman expressed fears about her two young children never knowing or building an emotional connection with their father because of long separations due to deployments. “The only thing I could do for her at that time was hold her as she cried,” she said.
The general’s wife called for more services and support to stay in front of the problem. “If we wait until they’re back,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to react fast enough for them.”
She also called for increased support for families with the added challenge of caring for wounded warriors. The support the nation owes these warriors and their caregivers is “significant,” she said.
To bolster this support, the Army is putting considerable efforts into developing its behavioral health force, the general said.
Casey highlighted several Army support programs, including the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which equips soldiers with the tools to build resilience. The program features an online survey that directs those with needs to online self-help modules. More than 800,000 people have taken the program’s online survey since October, he noted.
While progress has been made, much remains to be done, Casey acknowledged.
The Caseys both praised military members and their families for their resilience in the face of the “new normal” of multiple combat tours. “Our troops and their families have managed remarkably well,” the general said. “You can be extremely proud of the men and women, not only of the Army, but all of our armed forces.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)