The World War II era's so-called "Greatest Generation" will have to make room for the current generation of American servicemen and women. The burden members of this all-volunteer military have shouldered over the past eight-plus years is as great as any in the nation's history.
The Pentagon soon will take steps to ease that burden on both armed forces personnel and their families. McClatchy Newspapers writer Nancy A. Youssef reported this week that, beginning in the fall, the Marine Corps will make sure nearly all Marines spend at least 14 months at home for every seven months they spend in combat. Also, beginning in 2011, the Army will guarantee soldiers at least two years at home between every combat tour. Soldiers currently are spending from 15 to 18 months at home for every tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
These guarantees of longer periods between deployments are long overdue. As early as 2004, roughly a third of our all-volunteer military had served two or more combat tours. Today, almost 40 percent of U.S. military personnel have served two or more extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost 13,000 soldiers have spent three to four cumulative years in combat, according to a January article by USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya.
"It speaks pretty well to the fortitude of these folks that they just keep coming back for more," James Wilbanks of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., told Zoroya. "But it's difficult to watch, because it's really hard on them, and very, very difficult on the families."
Indeed, Youssef reports that the short periods of time at home between combat tours has been blamed for higher rates of suicide and divorce among returning servicemen and women. Mental health problems and prescription drug abuse also have risen — the latter likely due to the high number of wounded military personnel.
These problems can impact military readiness. Frequent long deployments away from home, for example, have made it more difficult to retain experienced veterans, both enlisted and officers. Pentagon brass also worry about the impact these long missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on training. Commanders told Youssef that having to prepare troops constantly for those two war zones leaves little time for training in skills unrelated to the conflicts.
The Pentagon has long sought to deploy troops abroad just once every several years, but the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have made that impossible with a smaller, all-volunteer military. Apparently, the recent drawdown in Iraq will allow the Pentagon to make some improvement in the rotation of troops in and out combat. A little more than a year between combat tours for Marines and two years for soldiers is well short of what the Pentagon says is needed. But, given the small number of individuals shouldering the burden of these two wars, it's probably the best that can be done at this time.