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Sgt. Robert Bales and multiple tours of duty: How many is too many?

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has carefully disavowed Bales’s alleged crime as the lone action of a lone gunman, for which the Pentagon may well seek the death penalty.

But the Pentagon acknowledges, too, the stresses put on its force by repeated deployments. Some 107,000 Army soldiers have been deployed to war three or more times since 2001, or some 20 percent of the active-duty force. More than 50,000 of those currently in uniform have completed four or more combat tours, Army figures indicate.

America’s current conflicts “represent not only the longest wars fought by our Army, but also the longest fought by an all-volunteer force,” placing “tremendous and unique burdens on our soldiers and families as compared to the previous conflicts,” notes a wide-ranging study of soldiers’ mental health released by the Army earlier this year.

The study was particularly adamant that any attempt to view "soldier misconduct in isolation" necessarily "fails to capture the real likelihood that the misconduct was associated with an untreated physical or behavioral health condition, such as increased aggression associated with PTSD." 

That's because in some cases the burdens of repeated deployments have been greater than those troops had endured in World War II, the study warns. The average infantryman in the South Pacific “saw about 40 days of combat in four years” in contrast to a “persistently high” level of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has offered “very few opportunities for individuals to rest, either physically or mentally.”

The Pentagon has grappled with just how many deployments is too many. A 2010 study known as the “Red Book” discovered in those who had completed multiple tours “a growing high-risk population of soldiers engaging in criminal and high-risk behavior with increasingly more severe outcomes including violent crime.”

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