Multiple tours of duty take their toll

By Clayton M. Canfield

What are we pretending not to know?

The recent murder of 17 Afghan civilians, burning of Korans, and urinating on dead Afghans, among other incidents, has brought to light a number of issues.

The media and society in general have focused on how the military treats service personnel, how it tests for post-traumatic stress syndrome, and how it handles indications of mental health issues. Nowhere have I seen or heard anyone addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: how multiple tours of duty in combat help create mentally imbalanced servicemen.

As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I am well aware of the effects of post-traumatic syndrome, peer pressure, and what I will call combat fatigue. I personally had very few effects from these factors after one easy tour of duty. I have witnessed, however, what it can do to those who were in much more stressful situations than I was, and let’s be clear: the effects are not positive.

In fact, I would argue that additional tours seriously undermine the mental health of those who know they are in danger of contact with the enemy, even if they cannot personally see the enemy. It seems intuitively obvious, and I believe the statistics will bear this out, that multiple tours of duty have a significantly negative effect on service personnel.

Clearly the military is doing what it can to alleviate the problem. But the military is stuck with a mission, established by the previous administration, and a budget, established by Congress. Overlay that with its mandate to follow orders.

Congress and the previous administration have created the problem by multiple means. First, it was expedient to avoid conscription, as both Iraq and Afghanistan were unpopular wars. This placed the burden of combat on an already reduced fighting force.

Second, in an attempt to reduce or hide some of the costs of the war, many of the previous duties of military units were contracted out to civilian companies. Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem.

Third, troops from units that normally would not see actual combat, such as the Navy and Air Force, were placed in combat situations.

Fourth, Reservists and National Guard units were mobilized to fight in an undeclared war that did not threaten our home soil.

Fifth, it became clear that even these measures were not going to suffice, so multiple tours became the norm. This also greatly reduced the cost of training new personnel for combat.

As a former Marine Corps officer, I might be willing to accept two tours of combat duty as a realistic norm, especially for career officers and men. However, once the norm becomes three and four tours, in my opinion, we have a mercenary force and one that is, almost by definition, mentally imbalanced toward combat, maybe even revenge.

This, I believe, is the root of the problem with Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians. While I do not condone the actions he allegedly carried out, the root of the problem lies with Congress and two presidents. Ultimately, the blame lies with you and me, the voting public, for installing the Congress, electing these presidents, and standing by while a pre-emptive strike was made under false pretenses against an enemy that was at worst a minimal threat. The entire situation has placed our service personnel in a situation that is extremely corrosive to the human spirit and, in my opinion, is a direct cause of mental health problems.

None of this addresses the problems that returning service personnel face when they attempt to assimilate back into civilian society. Although the military makes an attempt to help in the transition, the services they offer are voluntary, and due to the mind-set that has already been created by the military/combat training, service personnel are reluctant to take advantage of the help they are offered.

The root of the problem is easily hidden by our leaders, because most people in our society lose interest after the first two or three sound bites. I urge you to write your senators or representative and ask that he or she work diligently to a) remove our forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and b) make a far greater effort to treat our service personnel in a humane manner, reduce the stresses on deployed personnel, and make it mandatory for personnel being discharged to attend transition programs.

Clayton Canfield of Mukilteo is a former captain and helicopter pilot in the United States Marine Corps.