Going forward, learning from Staff Sgt. Bales

It was only a matter of time until the tragic incident attributed to Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales occurred. That doesn’t dismiss or excuse it, just acknowledges the consequences of more than 10 years of hard combat. Forty years ago, the trial over the events at My Lai startled the country as the Vietnam War was winding down. It fed even more anti-war sentiment. In this case, the conduct of a soldier on the ground has the capacity to unravel the end game for Afghanistan. Stepping aside from the impending trial and personal tragedy, Bales and his actions focus attention on lessons to be learned for the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) coming out of the longest engagement ever in its history, not withstanding its higher quality and tremendous capability.

Once again, the nation faces tough choices in sustaining and rebuilding a strong military in the midst of a weak economy and huge deficits. The Army is projected to downsize from a high of 570,000 to 490,000 troops and must still be ready to meet unpredictable and growing threats to national security. Its equipment and resources are worn and need repair and modernization. The food fight has commenced in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress over investing in weapons or personnel. But limited funding might not allow for both equipping the military and refitting its warriors. Historically, personnel requirements have been subordinated to lobbying for bigger and better weapons systems.

What’s the link to Bales? The facts about his case might not come out for a while, and the legal battle could extend for years, but the story of atrocities is one of many indicators of the immense stress and strain that has been bearing down on the troops. There is a sad list of domestic violence, suicides and murders, the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, and growing emotional stress and injuries, including blast concussions, suffered by at least 30 percent of our forces. The ground force has endured harsh conditions over repeated deployments.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been the first extended wars for the AVF. Unlike Vietnam, the country has not relied on a draft to provide a continuous flow of new recruits. These wars have used a smaller officer and noncommissioned officer cadre over multiple tours of duty. Comparatively, the AVF has been running a marathon, not a series of shorter sprints. Like marathon runners and other athletes, it takes a while to recover and then train up for the next race. What is the readiness — the state of mind, physical health, attitude and energy — to get up and run hard when called upon again? The can-do attitude is admirable, but what help does the AVF need to stay in the fight?

The Army faced just such challenges 30 years ago during the Reagan buildup. The leadership surveyed the force and recognized that dedicated initiatives were needed to rebuild and reset for the future fight. The Army chief of staff established test beds to comprehensively modernize personnel programs, doctrine, tactics and equipping. I was serving at Fort Hood, Texas, which was designated as the Human and Leadership Test Bed for everything that affected soldier performance. Our review was comprehensive and included physical training, sleep discipline, stress reduction, field medical support and treatment for substance abuse.

The time has come for a strategic shakedown again. The counterinsurgency strategy and warfare in the 21st century have fundamentally shifted training and preparation, and highlight a more intense focus on the single warrior — the fight is more soldier-centric and dependent on the strengths, capabilities and endurance of the individual than ever before.

The Army has expanded soldiers’ roles to nation builders, statesmen and diplomats, as strategic thinkers and problem solvers in an era of persistent conflict. The soldier truly is a professional athlete — training, mentality and “being healthy” take precedence. But, repetitive deployments and separations result in unforeseen challenges.

The implications going forward rest on assessing the readiness of the AVF, its health and well-being, and resetting it with better treatments and support tools. Soldiers are currently screened routinely both before deploying and upon returning. But, reviewing for medical disabilities, medications, or physical fitness is not enough, as the case of Bales may illustrate. Taking stock of the AVF after 10 years of war starts with recognizing and cataloging the injuries and stresses on the force, and then systematically resetting it to engage future threats. As such, it requires a cultural shift from “let’s get the broken players off the field” to “how do we help them heal and recover so that they can continue to play?” Such an approach is fair to the players and a tribute to the AVF that has fought so valiantly for so many years. 

Dr. Xenakis, who retired from the U.S. Army as a brigadier general, is a psychiatrist and the founder of the Center for Translational Medicine.