The murder of 16 civilians by an American soldier in Afghanistan has reignited the debate about the effect of multiple combat tours on our troops. Media reports have cited data that show multiple tours has a negative effect. You don’t need survey data to tell you that, just common sense. A lone report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found troops have more problems after a first deployment than following tours. However, military medicine can be looked at as the same as the team doctors that send football players back onto the field after multiple concussions.
A point that requires clarification is that the issue isn’t about the number of “tours.” Our different forces and units with different missions serve “tours” of different lengths. A tour in combat today may be as little as three to six months and up to 15 months. An Airman may do multiple six month tours while a soldier may do one 15 month turn. Some troops can deploy to a combat zone, yet never see combat. This isn’t always job-dependent. There are plenty of cooks and truck drivers who have seen as much combat as an infantryman. These are points the media and civilians don’t know and don’t understand. The debate is about the amount of time spent in combat, not the number of tours.
Like most things, there is no substitute for experience in combat. I felt a lot more competent and confident on my second tour in Iraq following my first 15-month tour. That experience was valuable when preparing and leading troops on their first tour. America now has the most seasoned and competent military in the world. However I certainly felt the cumulative effect of 27 months spent in Iraq. The things put into your head in combat never leave. It’s a strange tick of the human mind that we remember the things we want to forget and forget the things we want to remember.
The drawback of a smaller, all-volunteer military is that in long conflicts multiple tours become unavoidable. Afghanistan is now the longest ever American war. At certain times more Reserve or National Guard troops, usually tasked only to supplement, were serving in Iraq than Active Duty units were. Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of a draft, but the price for our troops is more time in combat when military interventions become protracted. Those that volunteer pay a very heavy burden.
One day in combat can be enough to have an effect. Some people may serve years without incident. In total, I’ve spent over four years of my life in a combat zone. But it doesn’t take a lot to understand that the more time troops spend in combat, the more likely an incident becomes. Our troops pay for the nation’s decision to go to war their entire lives, while those that make the decision pay very little themselves. We owe it to our troops to make sure that we’re protecting them as much as they’re protecting us.
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