(NaturalNews) It was a report that shocked most Americans: A senior noncommissioned officer walked out of his base in southern Afghanistan well before dawn, armed with his M-4 carbine and a mind full of ill-intent. Before the sun rose, 16 Afghan civilians, many of them women and children, lay dead in a nearby village, leaving elected leaders, the soldier's commanders, friends and fellow service members, the civilians he enlisted to serve, and his own family grieving and searching for answers.
What could cause Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a husband and family man who has been praised by commanders and fellow soldiers alike, go so completely off the deep end? Increasingly, it's looking like a host of issues, including money problems, legal woes and trouble at home, are at least partially responsible.
But there is another element that can't be discounted, and it's one that is difficult to measure in tangible terms: How much of an influence did battle stress have on Bales, who was on his fourth deployment in just over 10 years?
Having served a combat tour in Afghanistan, where I was exposed often enough to improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire, one year-long tour is stressful enough for most people. So to me, it is understandable that, for the past several years, larger numbers of returning veterans have experienced mental health problems and issues with drug and alcohol abuse.
That said, experts are only just now beginning to link such aberrant behavior among some vets to the amplified operational tempo that Bales and scores of other military personnel have endured over more than a decade of war. That's not an excuse for Bales' heinous act, mind you - only one possible explanation.
The Army sees it
The good news is that the military is beginning to recognize it has a problem. In 2010, the U.S. Army released a 15-month study examining the service branch's worsening suicide rate. What researchers found was alarming.
"Equivocal deaths, deaths by drug toxicity, accidental deaths, attempted suicides and drug overdoses are reducing the ranks and negatively effecting [sic] the Army's ability to engage in contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said the 350-page report, entitled Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention. The report defined equivocal deaths as those where natural causes, suicide, homicide, or accident could not be distinguished. "No one could have foreseen the impact of nine years of war on our leaders and soldiers," the report said.
A separate study in 2011 revealed more troubling news. Researchers surveyed more than 600 personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and found that http://health.usnews.com.
"While the 2008 Department of Defense Health Behavior Survey reveals general reductions over time in tobacco use and illicit drug use, it reported increases in other areas, such as prescription drug abuse and heavy alcohol use," the NIDA said. "In fact, prescription drug abuse doubled among U.S. military personnel from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008."
Abuse of alcohol "is the most prevalent problem and one which poses a significant health risk," the group said. It found that soldiers interviewed three to four months after returning home from combat zones in Iraq "showed that 27 percent met criteria for alcohol abuse and were at increased risk for related harmful behaviors (e.g., drinking and driving, using illicit drugs)."
Again, mental health issues were a rising concern:
In another study of returning soldiers, clinicians identified 20 percent of active and 42 percent of reserve component soldiers as requiring mental health treatment. Drug or alcohol use frequently accompanies mental health problems and was involved in 30 percent of the Army's suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009 and in more than 45 percent of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009.
Research into the problem is ongoing, NIDA said. Currently, The Millennium Cohort Study -- the largest prospective study in military history -- is following a representative sample of U.S. military personnel from 2001 to 2022. Preliminary results have already identified that, especially among Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers who "deploy with repeated combat exposures" are at "increased risk of new-onset heavy weekly drinking, binge drinking, and other alcohol-related problems."
The war in Iraq may be over for U.S. troops and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, but it's already become obvious that a decade of conflict, coupled with multiple deployments to combat zones will continue to take a toll on hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for years to come.