WASHINGTON – A third of U.S. troops surveyed in Iraq said their morale was low and half said they are unlikely to stay in the armed forces, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported.
Though the newspaper said its poll of some 2,000 troops was not a scientific sampling, the results raise anew worries that long deployments and the complex and dangerous mission in Iraq will prompt some to leave the military at re-enlistment time.
In a companion piece to its story Wednesday, the government-funded Stars and Stripes (search) said the commander in Iraq challenged the poll results.
"There is no morale problem," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search) told the paper.
"Are you going to find soldiers on any given day who are down on morale? Of course," he was quoted as saying. "There are days when I wake up and don't feel very good and I'd probably bite your head off. I walk around and talk to all sorts of soldiers also, and I honestly believe our soldiers are doing very, very well."
The newspaper said it sent three teams of reporters to Iraq in August after receiving letters through the summer in which some 60 percent complained about a range of subjects including living conditions and mail delivery.
The newspaper said it conducted a "convenience survey," meaning the questions were asked of those who happened to be available at the time rather than to a randomly selected cross-section.
It's reporters spent three weeks fanning across Iraq, visiting some 50 camps with the 17-part questionnaire on health, living conditions, mail delivery, whether they were sufficiently trained for their mission and so on.
In some places reporters handed out the questionnaire for service members to fill out, though the Air Force did not allow the distribution of the questions on all bases. At one such base, reporters were allowed to interview the airmen about the questionnaire.
Asked about their personal morale, 34 percent rated it as "low" or "very low," 27 percent said it was "high" or "very high," and virtually all the rest called it "average."
Slightly more than a third of those responding to the questionnaire said their mission was for the most part "not clearly defined" or "not at all defined." Sixty-three percent said it was.
Sanchez also took issue with that.
"I guarantee you that if you ask a soldier if he's focused on his mission, does he understand the criticality of his mission, I think you find that a majority of them really do understand why we're here and the implications of us not succeeding," he was quoted as saying.
Some 49 percent of those questioned said it was "very unlikely" or "not likely" that they would stay in the military after completing their current obligation.
Experts inside and outside the Pentagon have been predicting a drop in re-enlistment, particularly in the reserve units heavily used in the global war on terrorism and in Iraq.
Military officials say it is not uncommon for enlistment rates to drop after conflicts. But the latest recruiting and retention figures among all the services don't yet reflect any notable dissatisfaction with the armed forces.
"Many Reserve and National Guard (search) respondents said they were unhappy with a number of things ... often felt like second-class soldiers who don't receive the same equipment, support and treatment as their active-duty counterparts," the newspaper said.
Some soldiers suggested the congressional and other delegations visiting Iraq get a rosy view of the occupation because the people that they are allowed to talk to are hand-picked by officials, the newspapers said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked about this at a Pentagon news conference, said he didn't think it was possible for military leadership to have scripted what he heard from soldiers on his recent visit.
"I thought the morale was extremely high," said McConnell, "And the only complaint I heard were from a few reservists ... who were concerned about when were they going home."
He spoke in the latest in a series of some half dozen news conferences the Pentagon has called to have members of Congress vouch for in Iraq.