Nearly 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken an unremitting toll on the morale of U.S. troops and veterans. Army documents obtained by USA Today found that more than half of an estimated 770,000 soldiers have expressed deep pessimism about their jobs and what lay ahead at home or abroad.
Confronted with the figures and internal assessment, Army officials balked, suggesting weakly to USA Today that the reality was, in fact, much brighter. But unable to provide any evidence to back that claim, they simply redefined "optimism" in an effort to recast the broader conclusions.
"Subsequent to USA Today's inquiry, the Army calculated new findings but lowered the threshold for a score to be a positive result," the newspaper reported. "As a consequence, for example, only 9% of 704,000 score poorly in optimism."
The initial report, an annual survey conducted for the benefit of commanders, found that 52% of respondents agreed with the statement, "I rarely count on good things happening to me." Two-in-three were in or near what the study described as a cycle of "catastrophic thinking."
Priceless peace: The study was commissioned as part of the Army's $287 million program aimed at raising the spirits of soldiers, many of whom have spent the better part of a decade, often the entirety of their adult lives, cycling through deadly war zones. An internal review of the initiative, conducted by an independent panel last year, described it as a failure with an emphasis on unproven methods.
Meanwhile, Army officials continue to struggle with the fallout; an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day as lawmakers dither over what to do about it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 14% of Americans diagnosed with some form of depression are war veterans. From 2000 to 2007, as soldiers were thrown headlong into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one in five patients assessed by the Department of Veterans Affairs were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In February, President Barack Obama signed into law the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a measure meant to provide better mental health care to returning military personnel. Hunt, 28, killed himself in 2011 after being repeatedly failed and obstructed by institutional failure at the VA. The bill had been blocked in December 2014 by outgoing Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as his parting gift to Congress.
Endless war: A poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation in March 2014 found that 2.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation's veterans." A third of the respondents said they spend parts of every day thinking about their time overseas.
For American war veterans, there is no escape, no amount of money or volume of research with the power to erase those memories. The president's signing of the Hunt Act was a positive step — good counseling and responsive institutions have the power to salvage millions of lives. But the Army's attempts to juke the stats, to create "optimism" where simply surviving is such a massive challenge, provides dreadful evidence of the old paradigm's resilient grip.
For millions of young veterans, the wars are only just the beginning.