Troops polled say armed forces stretched too thin overseas

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WASHINGTON -- A solid majority of American soldiers returning from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan say that U.S. armed forces are stretched too thin, according to a poll released yesterday by a veterans group.

VoteVets.org , a group headed by an Army reservist based near Pittsburgh, found that 63 percent of veterans of both conflicts describe the Army and Marine Corps as "overextended," while many soldiers also complained about encountering emotional and physical problems when they came back from active duty.

"We hope that this poll is a wake-up call for Congress," said Jon Soltz , who served in Iraq in 2003 and is now a captain with a reserve unit at the Charles E. Kelly Support Facility in Oakdale and chairman of VoteVets.

At a news conference in Washington yesterday, Mr. Soltz was joined by Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander and one-time Democratic presidential candidate, who said the federal government isn't providing sufficient resources to support the troops on the battlefield.

It's a charge that Army officials hotly deny, pointing toward huge expenditures for body armor, fortified transport vehicles and expanded mental health programs. Last week, Congress approved a $447 billion defense spending bill for 2007, including $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has about 150,000 troops deployed in both countries.

"Obviously the U.S. Army will be the first to tell you that this is an unusually busy time" said Paul Boyce, an spokesman with the Army's public affairs office. But he said the government is focused on easing the strains of long or repeated tours of duty. He cited "unprecedented efforts" to monitor combat stress, using lessons from the Vietnam and Gulf wars.

Concerns about lengthy troop deployments aren't new, but Mr. Soltz claims that VoteVets' poll has an unusual sweep. It was conducted over a two-week period last month by Lake Research Partners, whose pollsters talked to 453 veterans from across the country and all sections of the military. Forty-seven percent of the veterans described themselves as Republicans, while 22 percent said they were Democrats. Others said they were political independents or declined to answer.

Other poll findings:

Thirteen percent of participants said they were affected by military "stop-loss" policies that require some units to stay in the field for extended time periods.

One in four veterans has had nightmares since returning to the United States.

Thirty-two percent of National Guard or Reserve veterans said their families experienced "economic hardships" because of their overseas deployments. Many National Guard and Reserve veterans also said they should get full access to the medical benefits provided to active duty personnel.

Mr. Soltz said his group, which is funded with private money and advocates on behalf of a new generation of veterans, is nonpartisan. But some critics say VoteVets is too closely tied to Democrats like Gen. Clark. The group's political action committee has also paid for advertisements attacking some Senate Republicans, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Soltz said VoteVets has supported both Republicans and Democrats, and yesterday's news conference was not an effort to back one party before the upcoming mid-terms elections, which could determine control of Congress.

Gen. Clark, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, said he wants to push political leaders to make sure they are doing all they can for American soldiers.

"Wearing an American flag lapel and claiming to be patriotic -- that's not sufficient," he said.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 1-202-488-3479.


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