WASHINGTON: Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have left their mark on American soldiers and the United States will be grappling with the effects for years to come, the US military’s top officer said on Wednesday.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the "untold costs and an undetermined toll" from nearly a decade of combat, with returning troops suffering from invisible mental wounds and no longer steeped in conventional military training.
He said that the country is "just beginning to come to terms" with the impact of the wars, with the military facing tough challenges as it brings back more troops from Iraq and, eventually, from Afghanistan.
"I believe what we can see today is truly just the tip of the iceberg — with consequences for our military and veteran health care system, our national employment rate, and even homelessness," Mullen told the Association of the US Army.
"There are many soldiers and veterans coming home for whom the battle hasn’t ended," he said.
"For many, it’s just the beginning. They face physical and mental injuries, anxiety and depression, changing family dynamics and the extraordinary challenges of post-traumatic stress."
Amid rising suicide rates among troops, the military had to remove the "stigma" still sometimes associated with mental health problems, to encourage troubled soldiers to ask for help, he said.
And new recruits needed to be taught how to prepare psychologically for the trauma of combat, Mullen said.
"We need to teach soldiers psychological fitness skills — just as surely as we teach them to march, wear a uniform, or fire a weapon," the admiral said.
With the US economy struggling, Mullen appealed to industry to hire veterans, particularly wounded veterans, saying the country could not afford to repeat the Vietnam War’s aftermath, when former soldiers fell through the cracks.
"Some veterans are already having a hard time translating their military experience and talents into viable jobs when they transition out of the service," he said.
"We simply can’t afford to lose another generation of veterans to homelessness like we did in the Vietnam era," he said.
After the strain of more than nine years of war, the future of the force would hinge on its ability to retain talented officers, he said.
The US military, however, would have to figure out how to keep soldiers engaged once the exhilaration of combat recedes, he said.
"How do we keep their adrenaline running? How do we keep them engaged constructively?" he said.
The fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan — involving vast numbers of troops — also had meant traditional military skills have been neglected, and that the armed forces would have to ensure troops honed skills for conventional warfare, the admiral said.
"There are tasks we aren’t able to do anymore — missions that we haven’t trained for because we are so heavily engaged," he said.
"Across our armed forces, I worry about young marines who have never deployed aboard ships — artillery officers who haven’t fired a gun in years — fighter pilots who have not honed their air-to-air skills at all."