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Fourth Deployment

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So we learn that Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was on his fourth tour of duty in our misbegotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians in southern Afghanistan. His fourth tour of duty as an infantry soldier, thus putting him at far greater risk of injury (which SSG Bales sustained in Iraq) of death than the "clerks and jerks" and rear-area paper-pushers who never engage in mortal combat. That sort of thing can raise hell with one's head.

Fourth deployment. And while back at home his wife and children waited anxiously and endlessly, the Army tucked an extra $150 a month into SSG Bales's pay envelope for combat duty -- for putting himself in harm's way over and over again -- and $250 a month for being separated from his family. Soooo generous! And who is it that is supposed to support the troops? Those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers are empty gestures as long as the Department of Defense, which squanders countless billions on weapons systems that fail and on high-priced civilian contractors, thinks combat duty is worth an extra $150 a month. That wouldn't even buy dinner for some of the contractors and "consultants" the Pentagon lavishes its money on.

The larger point is that when the military has to recycle its fighting forces four times, they should get the message that they are fighting an endless war, a "Forever War" as the journalist Dexter Filkins titled his book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have had boots on the ground in Afghanistan for over ten years, and many of those boots have trod the same stony ground over and over again, and far too many of the soldiers who wore those boots have been returned to their families in caskets, or wearing prostheses after encounters with the signature weapon of the enemy, the IED, or Improvised Explosive Device.

Eight years in Iraq, eleven years in Afghanistan. We have recycled our fighting forces at least four times. The National Center for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has discovered that "many stressors" face the troops who served in Iraq and continue to serve in Afghanistan. (See what research can reveal? Combat troops are under stress! Who knew?) And among those "stressors" are

  • Longer deployment time
  • More severe combat exposure, such as:
  • Deployment to "forward" areas close to the enemy
  • Seeing others wounded or killed
SSG Bales had experienced those stressors and more. His lawyer, John Henry Browne, is quoted as saying that Sergeant Bales saw another soldier lose a leg to a landmine the day before his alleged rampage.

Sergeant Bales joined the Army soon after September 11, 2001, apparently as an act of patriotism. His patriotism was repaid with repeated lengthy deployments into combat zones. Oh, yes, and by that $150 a month.

Sergeant Bales and tens of thousands of other patriotic men and women in uniform were failed by a government that attacked Afghanistan and made a protracted muddle of it, then needlessly and recklessly attacked Iraq. The troops have finally been brought back from Iraq -- but some, like Sergeant Bales, have been redeployed to Afghanistan for more of the same. We are now told that the Afghanistan combat mission -- whatever it was -- will end in 2014. That means there is still time to recycle our overstressed fighting forces one more time at least.