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A battle-rattled Army

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

A recent survey reveals that soldiers from Old Ironsides, the U.S. Army’s mighty 1st Armored Division – now back in Germany after months of on-again, off-again slugging it out with insurgents in Iraq – have been hitting the Sick Book hard.

But battle wounds aren’t what’s marching these warriors into the Aid Station. It’s that age-old conflict chimera: post-traumatic stress. Whatever you want to call the sucker – shell shock, combat fatigue or Vietnam Stress Syndrome – this insidious consequence of war has been sinking its claws into psyches since some testosterone-driven stud first picked up a rock and resolved a conflict problem by crushing a neighboring caveman’s skull.

What’s needling my brain is that in some additional Army studies where participating soldiers were assured total confidentiality – a must in today’s zero-defect Army, where soldiers who publicly admit they’re depressed or having nightmares or temper-tantrums should plan to kiss future promotions goodbye and expect their walking papers at the end of their hitch – the number of Iraq veterans copping to post-combat mental problems has more than tripled from an average of 4 percent to 5 percent to a scary 17 percent.

That high a percentage is a shocker, and the trend that seems to be developing really blows me out. If 17 out of every 100 returning vets are mentally down, our Army is in serious trouble – there’s no way any unit can sustain so staggering a loss.

The grabber here is that this alarming figure just doesn’t track with World War II, Korea and Vietnam data, where combat engagements often lasted for months, even years, and the troops were literally wading through one blood bath after another. For example, the 3rd Infantry Division fought from Africa to V-E Day and racked up more than 400 days of the toughest imaginable combat duty, but suffered only a fraction of the stress casualties claimed by today’s troopers.

And in Korea from 1950 to ’53, where I went from rifleman to company commander, we saw daily fighting against fanatic opponents, during which my units took serious casualties: On Feb. 6, 1951, my 40-man rifle platoon took eight dead and 28 wounded, and on Nov. 4, my 50-man Raider unit lost every man save six. But neither of these exceptionally hard-pressed units lost one man to combat fatigue.

Although the daily intensity of combat was nowhere near comparable with World War II and Korea, the Vietnam War came with its own fiendish mind-twisters: a frontless war and the anxieties that went with fighting a devious and clever foe who fought from the shadows and whose hit-and-run tactics wreaked their own special thousand cuts to the brain. And when will any of us who were there ever forget the wall-to-wall carpet of mines and booby traps, where each and every time a grunt put a foot down he wondered if he’d lose a leg or a life? Still, during 17 months of doing the death dance with the Screaming Eagles and then the 9th Division, I can recall only one soldier who lost it.

Regarding Iraq, of course it, too, is no cakewalk. As in Vietnam, there have been some brief but very fierce firefights – such as Fallujah – against a skilled and barbaric enemy. Another frontless war, another evasive, ghostlike opponent – and bigger and better, constantly improving mines and booby traps as ubiquitous as the desert sand.

The huge spike in combat-stress cases is probably in part a result of the highly effective new Army program to spot any signs of this disorder early, which has never before been done on so sweeping a scale. And it’s about time. In the past, it was always just use ’em and lose ’em.

But although the docs are doing an excellent job tending to the fallout, I’m convinced the underlying issue is that initial entry training – i.e., basic – has gotten so soft and stress-free that we’re sending a generation of young soldiers into battle without giving them the right stuff to make it through the crucible of combat. And that’s not only unfair, it’s irresponsible – and tragic.

Because the key to combat survival continues to be an iron discipline coupled with a mind and body that have been steeled to withstand the unspeakable stress that comes with the oh-so-futile, mind-bending carnage of man killing man.