WASHINGTON -- The nation's top military officer said today he expects soldier suicides and other personal and family problems -- already alarmingly prevalent in the ranks -- to increase further in the coming months as large numbers of troops settle back into their bases after years of deployments.
With the drawdown of US forces in Iraq now well underway, the armed forces is finally beginning to receive a respite from the back-to-back tours of duty that have taken place since 2003 -- particularly Army and Marine Corps units.
But with that there is likely to be a rise in disciplinary problems, domestic friction, and other symptoms of years of enormous psychological and physcial wear and tear.
"I think we are going to see a significant increase in the challenges that we have in terms of our families because they are going to have some time home and things that have been pent up or packed in or basically suppressed" will have a chance to emerge, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
The military brass has worked hard to increase so-called "dwell time," the length of time between deployments, so that military members and their families have greater stability and there is ample time to train for multiple threats, not just the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is now starting to happen as the US military commitment in Iraq winds down, even as troop levels have grown in Afghanistan.
Mullen cited as one example Joint Base Lewis-McChord, an Army and Air Force installation in Washington state. "I was taken back that at Fort Lewis by the end of October 36,000 troops will be back. We have never had that many troops there, certainly not since 2003."
And the good news is that just one brigade is scheduled to deploy in the next two years, he said.
Yet that also means that commanders will have to deal with a large number of troops with significant personal challenges back for the first extended period with their families at their home bases -- what he referred to as "garrison leadership," which is different from leadership on the battlefield.
"That is going to have to be taught," he said.
Mullen remains particularly concerned about suicide rates, which have gone up in every branch of the military since 2004 and have hit record highs in the Army, which has borne the brunt of repeated deployments.
"The emergency issue right now is suicides," Mullen said. "We had five suicides in the Army last weekend."
But there are a variety of other well-documented problems facing a ground force that has been stretched thin in recent years, including post-traumatic stress disorder, battle injuries, and other pressures "that so many have dealt with for so long" but have not yet had a chance to manifest themselves.
"I think we are going to see a growth in that before we see a decline."
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.