WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, May 4, 2007) - The military has a robust system in place to deal with mental health issues, but longer and more frequent deployments are causing strain on servicemembers, a Defense Department study has found.

The fourth Mental Health Advisory Team survey, MHAT IV as this survey was called, was conducted in August and September. For the first time, the survey included Marines in the study group. The MHAT was composed of behavioral health professionals who deployed to Iraq and surveyed Soldiers, Marines, health care providers, and chaplains, Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the acting surgeon general of the Army, told reporters at the Pentagon.

The MHAT IV team found that not all Soldiers and Marines deployed to Iraq are at equal risk for screening positive for a mental health symptom, and the level of combat is the main determining factor of a servicemember's mental health status, Maj. Gen. Pollock said. For Soldiers, deployment length and family separation were the top non-combat deployment issues, whereas Marines had fewer non-combat deployment issues, probably because of their shorter deployment periods, she said.

The team recommended behavioral outreach efforts that focus on units that are in theater longer than six months and determined that shorter deployments or longer intervals between deployments would allow Soldiers and Marines better opportunities to reset mentally before returning to combat.

Maj. Gen. Pollock said these findings contributed to the Army's decision to extend combat deployments to 15 months, because it gave the units waiting to deploy more time at their home stations. Congress has authorized the Defense Department to increase the strength the Army, she noted, which will help increase time at home between deployments for Soldiers.

Fifteen-month deployments will be stressful for servicemembers, Maj. Gen. Pollock acknowledged, and that's why it's important for leaders to be trained in behavioral health issues.

"We've got more attention now on the importance of leadership, and I think that's one of the strengths that the team really identified, is that with good leadership, even when people may have a bad thought, they don't act on that thought," she said. "So it's very important that we ensure that the young leaders have the training so they know how to support the troops that depend on them."

For the first time since the MHAT program was started in 2003, this assessment included questions about battlefield ethics, Maj. Gen. Pollock said. Of those surveyed, 10 percent of Soldiers and Marines reported mistreating noncombatants or damaging property when it was not necessary, she said.

The survey also found that only 47 percent of Soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. More than one-third of all Soldiers and Marines reported that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow Soldier or Marine, and less than half of Soldiers or Marines said they would report a team member for unethical behavior.

In the report, mistreating noncombatants was defined as either stealing from a noncombatant, destroying or damaging property when it wasn't necessary, or hitting or kicking a noncombatant.

These findings may seem alarming, Maj. Gen. Pollock said, but it is important to keep them in perspective. These troops have been seeing their friends killed and injured, and anger is a normal reaction, she said. However, what's important to note is that the troops who had these thoughts did not act on them and actually mistreat any noncombatants.

"What it speaks to is the leadership that the military is providing, because they're not acting on those thoughts," she said. "They're not torturing the people. And I think it speaks very well to the level of training that we have in the military today."

Other key findings of the report include:

-- The 2006 adjusted rate of suicides per 100,000 Soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom was 17.3 Soldiers, lower than the 19.9 rate reported in 2005, but higher than the Army average of 11.6 per 100,000 Soldiers.

-- Soldiers experienced mental health problems at a higher rate than Marines.

-- Deployment length was directly linked to morale problems in the Army.

-- Leadership is key to maintaining Soldier and Marine mental health.

-- Both Soldiers and Marines reported at relatively high rates -- 62 and 66 percent, respectively -- that they knew someone seriously injured or killed, or that a member of their team had become a casualty.

-- Only 5 percent of Soldiers reported taking in-theater rest and relaxation leave, although the average time deployed was nine months.

-- Multiple deployers reported higher acute stress than first-time deployers. Deployment length was related to higher rates of mental health problems and marital problems.

-- Current suicide prevention training is not designed for a combat environment.

-- Behavioral health providers require additional combat and operational stress-control training prior to deploying to Iraq.

Since the MHAT IV report was presented to the Multinational Force Iraq commander and service leaders in November, the Army and Marines have implemented changes to improve behavioral health care, Maj. Gen. Pollock said. The Army has revised teaching curriculum and operational training to include more focus on Army values, suicide prevention, battlefield ethics, and behavioral health awareness in all junior-leader-development courses, she said.

The Marine Corps has been developing deployment-cycle training since 2003, said Navy Capt. William P. Nash, coordinator of the Combat/Operational Stress Control Branch of the service's Manpower and Reserve Affairs directorate. Marines, leaders and families all receive training in identifying, managing and preventing mental health problems, he said.