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A Different Kind of Battlefield: Military Morale Plummeting

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Mark Gordon - published on 12/09/14

New Military Times survey shows dramatic decrease in satisfaction since 2009.

Military Times, a Gannett Company publication has released its annual survey of active duty service members, and the news is not good. The report, written by Hope Hodge Seck and titled “America’s Military: A Force Adrift,” finds “morale indicators on the decline in nearly every aspect of military life. Troops report significantly lower overall job satisfaction, diminished respect for their superiors, and a declining interest in re-enlistment now compared to just five years ago.”

According to the non-scientific survey of Military Times readers, only 56% of service members believe “my quality of life is good or excellent,” down from 91% in 2009. Seventy percent believe that the quality of life for active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will decline in the next few years.

Much of the current pessimism has to do with pay and benefits, which have taken a hit as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. Last year, Congress capped military pay increases at 1%, almost half the growth of private-sector wages. That’s the lowest military pay raise since the mid-1970s. Some small reductions were made in military housing benefits, as well, with troops having to foot the bill for 5% of their housing costs. That number will drop to 1% next year, but for service members who are already underpaid any marginal increase is a lot.  

As the report notes, “a pervasive sense of pessimism about the post-9/11 wars may also contribute to the overall feeling of dissatisfaction among troops and a feeling of detachment from the decision-makers who sent them to those fights.” Only 27% agreed that the “senior military leadership has my best interests at heart,” as compared to 53% five years ago. In 2009, 78% of troops felt that the quality of the officer corps was good or excellent. That number is down to 49% now.

Troops also feel disconnected from civilians, especially now that the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. The report cites Duke University’s Peter Feaver, a professor of political science, who notes that, "for the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them]."

Morale is also affected by reductions in force (RIF), which often catch service members by surprise and scuttle plans to make the military a career. RIFs are nothing new, of course; every army that has ever fought retired a good portion of its soldiers following the cessation of hostilities. But budget-driven downsizing at a time when many Americans continue to face economic insecurity can affect both those cut from the rolls and those threatened by cuts, especially close colleagues.

Then there is the stress of repeated deployments. An estimated 10 percent of the 2.4 million service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed three times or more.  These deployments put enormous pressure on soldiers and sailors, but also on families. Military wives whose husbands are subject to multiple long deployments suffer from higher rates of depression, and such couples face a much higher risk of divorce than other military or civilian couples.

Given this dramatic decline in the morale of the armed forces, it is perhaps no accident that suicide is now the leading cause of death among active duty personnel, exceeding both accidents and combat. Currently, one active-duty service member a day commits suicide, and when that lens is widened to include all veterans, both active and separated, the daily figure swells to 22 per day.  

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