WASHINGTON - American troops in Afghanistan are suffering the highest rates of mental health problems since 2005 and morale has deteriorated, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Military doctors said the findings were no surprise given the dramatic increase in fighting, which was at its most intense level during the survey period since officials began doing such battlefield mental health analyses in 2003.
The grim statistics dramatized the psychological cost of a war campaign that U.S. commanders and officials say has reversed the momentum of the insurgency in the war-ravaged country.
Some 70 to 80 percent of troops surveyed for the report said they had seen a buddy killed; roughly half of soldiers and 56 percent of Marines said they had killed an enemy fighter, and about two thirds of troops said that a bomb had gone off within 55 yards of them.
Those incidents were higher than what troops experienced in the previous year in Afghanistan as well as during the 2007 surge of extra troops into Iraq, the report said. But the rate of psychological problems may actually be small, considering the high level of combat that troops are seeing, said Col. Paul Bliese, who led the last three survey teams to the battlefield in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the military said that it has doubled the mental health staff in the country to help troops cope with their problems.
The new data comes from a mental health team that polled more than 900 soldiers, 335 Marines and 85 mental health workers on the Afghan battlefield in July and August, as troops surged into the country under the Obama administration's new strategy for fighting the insurgency.
President Barack Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops there last year to build the force to the current 100,000. Commanders and administration officials say the push has weakened the Taliban, and a limited troop withdrawal is planned by this July.
Stress disorder worse for women
Women deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are especially vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers reported this week at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Women have been denied insurance coverage for treatment for PTSD at a higher rate than men because of a stipulation that required combat experience to qualify for the benefit. Under rule changes last year, any veteran deployed to a combat zone can seek care for PTSD. But VA officials know little about the scope of the problem among women.