WASHINGTON – Life for U.S. troops in Iraq can be boring and commanders can sometimes seem petty.
Morale for each Army soldier and Marine in the war depends foremost on how much combat they have seen. But it also is about the trivial and mundane — a lack of privacy or a resented rule that dictates the color of T-shirts they must wear.
It's about the triumphs, too.
When troops score a success against militants, "morale goes through the roof," said Hagen. "But when you hear one of your friends gets hurt, it drops to an all-time low."
A recently released Pentagon mental health study of troops in Iraq found 45 percent of junior enlisted Army soldiers rated their unit's morale as low or very low. Twenty percent of soldiers and 15 percent of Marines were found to have a mental health problem, defined as anxiety, depression or acute stress.
Researchers found both depend partly on how long each person has been there, how many tours of duty they've served and what their personal experiences have been.
"We have it pretty good here," said Sgt. Jesus Cruz, who organizes helicopter flight logistics in Baghdad's Green Zone. The heavily fortified zone houses Iraqi government offices and is only sporadically hit by mortar. Assignment there means good dining hall food, regular work schedules and access to the U.S. Embassy swimming pool.
"A lot of guys out there have it a lot tougher," Cruz said.
About two-thirds of those surveyed said they knew someone who had been killed or injured. More than three-quarters of soldiers and Marines said they had been in situations where they could have been killed or seriously injured.
Events that made them feel "intense fear, helplessness or horror," were described by nearly 40 percent.
Reported anonymously in the publicly released version of the study, the events included:
—"My sergeant's leg getting blown off."
—"A huge ... bomb blew my friend's head off like 50 meters from me."
—"Doing raids on houses with bad intel."
—"Working to clean out body parts from a blown up tank."
—"Convoy stopped in dangerous areas due to incompetent commanders."
—"A Bradley (tank) blew up. We got two guys out, three were still inside. I was the medic."
The report, released May 4, was based on data collected from some 1,300 soldiers and nearly 450 Marines in Iraq last fall. When it was released, most attention focused on the study's first-ever survey of ethics among troops at the front.
The report also found:
—The ratings on morale and instances of mental health problems were at about the same levels as in the previous study, done in mid-2006.
—Fifty-six percent of soldiers were highly concerned about the long tours.
—Eleven percent of those deployed for the first time had a mental health problem, compared to 27 percent of those on repeat tours.
— Lack of privacy was a major concern among 39 percent of soldiers, whose housing ranges from two-person trailers to 20-person tents.
— Boring and repetitive work was a main concern for 39 percent of soldiers and 33 percent of Marines.
—Among soldiers exposed to a low level of combat, 11 percent had a mental health problem; it was 30 percent among those who saw a high level of combat.
—More than a third of soldiers and Marines reported being in threatening situations where they weren't allowed to use force. After Iraqis began throwing gasoline-filled bottles at them, for instance, troops were banned from responding with force for nearly a month until the rules of engagement were changed.
—Many resent senior leaders for what they say are harassing rules — like the one on the T-shirt rules.
When asked in focus group interviews specifically what affected morale, troops consistently mentioned two things: base rules they disliked and what they saw as an unfair system on morale-boosting programs, the study said.
In some places, soldiers were not allowed to wear tan Army T-shirts with black Army shorts — they could only wear gray T-shirts with the black shorts.
In one unit, it was ordered that when two or more soldiers were walking together, they had to be dressed alike.
Such rules can be aimed at maintaining order and discipline, but troops felt "they had no other practical purpose other than to harass" them, said the report.
Soldiers also said those who went off-base to do the most dangerous duty had to wait in long lines to use phones or e-mail, could rarely take the afternoon off to attend concerts or other events, and found it harder to take R&R because they are needed in the fight.
Those who rarely, if ever left base had unfettered access to those morale-boosting programs — not to mention got "first dibs" on new items coming into the post commissary.
"It is probably not any single" thing, but rather "the accumulation of all of them that tends to wear down the soldiers' and Marines' morale," the study said.