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New York -- Iraq war veterans now stationed at a base here in upstate New York say that morale among US soldiers in the country is so poor, many are simply parking their Humvees and pretending to be on patrol, a practice dubbed "search and avoid" missions.
Phil Aliff is an active duty soldier with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum. He served nearly one year in Iraq from August 2005 to July 2006, in the areas of Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, both west of Baghdad.
"Morale was incredibly low," said Aliff, adding that he joined the military because he was raised in a poor family by a single mother and had few other prospects. "Most men in my platoon in Iraq were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan."
According to Aliff, their mission was to help the Iraqi army "stand up" in the Abu Ghraib area of western Baghdad, but in fact his platoon was doing all the fighting without support from the Iraqis they were supposedly preparing to take control of the security situation.
"I never heard of an Iraqi unit that was able to operate on their own," said Aliff, who is now a member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "The only reason we were replaced by an Iraqi army unit was for publicity."
Aliff said he participated in roughly 300 patrols. "We were hit by so many roadside bombs we became incredibly demoralized, so we decided the only way we wouldn't be blown up was to avoid driving around all the time."
"So we would go find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapons caches in the fields and doing weapons patrols and everything was going fine," he said, adding, "All our enlisted people became very disenchanted with our chain of command."
Aliff, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), refused to return to Iraq with his unit, which arrived in Kirkuk two weeks ago. "They've already lost a guy, and they are now fostering the sectarian violence by arming the Sunnis while supporting the Shi'ites politically ... classic divide and conquer."
Aliff said he is set to be discharged by the military next month because they claim his PTSD "is untreatable by their doctors".
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for PTSD increased nearly 70% in the 12 months ending on June 30.
The nearly 50,000 VA-documented PTSD cases greatly exceed the 30,000 military personnel that the Pentagon officially classifies as wounded in both occupations.
VA records show that mental health has become the second-largest area of illness for which veterans of the ongoing occupations are seeking treatment at VA hospitals and clinics. The total number of mental health cases among war veterans increased by 58%; from 63,767 on June 30, 2006, to 100,580 on June 30, 2007, according to the VA.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who reports from Iraq.