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Originally published May 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 4, 2009 at 12:08 AM

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Accidental deaths a problem for troops in Iraq

he 130,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq are more likely to die in accidents, from natural causes or in other "nonhostile" incidents than at the hands of insurgents, according to Defense Department statistics for the past eight months ending in April.

The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — The 130,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq are more likely to die in accidents, from natural causes or in other "nonhostile" incidents than at the hands of insurgents, according to Defense Department statistics for the past eight months ending in April.

The statistics highlight the dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq over the past year, but also underscore a challenge that has bedeviled U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since hostilities began: A steady stream of soldiers and Marines are losing their lives in circumstances that are often preventable.

Between September 2008 and April 2009, 72 troops died in Iraq from accidents, illness or suicide, compared with 67 who died in action, according to the Pentagon.

The Defense Department recently approved plans to hire hundreds of additional safety specialists to deploy with Army and Marine Corps units, according to top safety officials. The military has also initiated a series of new training drills such as a simulation exercise that teaches troops how to escape if their Humvee rolls over.

"As stressed as the Army force is, rotating soldiers in and out of a combat zone, the last thing we need" are casualties that can be prevented, said Sgt. Maj. Tod Glidewell, the senior noncommissioned officer at the Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Some specialists, meanwhile, also expressed concern that an increase in accidental gunshot wounds and suicides may be new evidence of pressure on troops who have served multiple tours.

"That is a sign of wear on the force," said Paul Reickhoff, an Iraq veteran who is now president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a leading advocacy group.

Officials say they have made strides in controlling some types of accidents, such as vehicle rollovers. But those declines have been offset by the increase in weapons accidents and suicides, meaning the rate of deaths by nonhostile causes has remained fairly steady throughout the Iraq war — between 100 and 175 per year.

A full 20 percent — or 1 out of every 5 — of all U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have been the result of nonhostile wounds. In Afghanistan, the share of nonhostile deaths is nearly half of the total, although violence is increasing.

Since the start of the war in March 2003, more than 500 troops have died from vehicle or aircraft crashes and other accidents such as falls, according to the data. Dozens more have drowned, while at least 26 troops were slain by fellow soldiers.

Another major cause of accidents are so-called negligent discharges — or accidental gunshots. More than 180 troops have died from accidental gunshot wounds since the invasion, most recently two Marines in Anbar Province who died within the past two weeks, according to the Pentagon.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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