Non-hostile deaths in Iraq raise alarm

Accidents: A growing number of non-combat casualties troubles U.S. military officials.

January 11, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When his two sons left for the war in Iraq, Chuck Norman worried more about Chris, a 24-year-old Marine Reservist who was part of the first wave of attack. His other son, Bobby, 21, rolled in with the Army's 1st Armored Division after Baghdad fell and the Iraqi army was melting away.

Yet it was Chris who returned safely home last fall, while Bobby died Nov. 22 at Baghdad International Airport, not under enemy fire but in a nighttime traffic accident involving his Humvee and an Army M-1 tank.

"I would never imagine in a million years that's the way my son would have died," said Norman, of Hendersonville, N.C., saying that his son, though patrolling in a Humvee, was trained as a tanker. "It's ironic that my son was killed by what he was supposed to be driving."

While U.S. soldiers continue to die by hostile fire each week in Iraq, a troubling number are succumbing to "non-hostile" deaths, and about half of those are vehicle-related, involving other soldiers or Iraqi civilians.

During major combat operations, which began March 19 and were declared at an end May 1 by President Bush, 120 American service members died in hostile action, and 23 deaths were ascribed to non-hostile causes.

Since that date, 227 have been killed in hostile action and 129 have died in incidents classified as non-hostile, according to Pentagon statistics. The majority of the deaths are from Army units, which account for most of the U.S. ground force, but the figure includes Marine, Air Force and Navy personnel.

As of the first week of this month, the Army has reported 100 non-hostile deaths among its troops since the war began, and 46 of them are vehicle-related. The causes of other non-hostile deaths vary from accidental discharge of a weapon and falling from a building to electrocution and drowning.

Military officials say they are trying to deal with the increasing problem of accidental deaths through training and safety messages.

Highway hazards

Lt. Col. Jay Jennings, deputy director of safety and occupational health for U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., said that the increased number of non-hostile deaths - particularly traffic accidents - partly results from more Iraqi civilians' taking to the roads once major combat concluded. "It tends to make it hazardous on the highway for our vehicles," said Jennings. "Also our vehicles are large, and visibility is a challenge."

Among Army units in Iraq, soldiers from the task force that includes the 1st Armored Division, responsible for the teeming city of Baghdad, have suffered the highest rate of non-hostile deaths, 44 hostile deaths and another 27 non-hostile deaths.

At its largest, the task force included more than 37,000 troops and included sizable units of military police, an armored regiment, an airborne brigade, a civil affairs unit and reserve soldiers. The task force now has about 27,000 soldiers.

The percentage of non-hostile deaths among U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan is even greater, accounting for about 70 percent of the 99 fatalities as of Wednesday, according to Pentagon statistics. U.S. forces went to war there in October 2001.

Worldwide, the number of military on-duty accidental deaths has been steadily increasing during the past three years, mostly owing to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also including missions in other locales, such as the Balkans. On-duty accidental deaths numbered 113 in 2000 and rose to 225 last year, according to the latest Pentagon report.

A similar spike was seen during the 1991 Persian Gulf war when non-hostile deaths exceeded the number of soldiers killed in combat.

Concerned by the growing number of accidental military deaths, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld challenged Pentagon officials in June to reduce the accident rate by 50 percent over two years. "World-class organizations do not tolerate preventable accidents," Rumsfeld said in a memo. "We need to turn this situation around."

Norman and John "Skip" Bushart of Pontiac, Mich., whose son, Damian, 22, died in the Nov. 22 Humvee accident, say they have little information from the Army about the crash, which is under investigation. Were adequate safety measures being taken? they asked.

Bushart said Army officials told him the tank and Humvee were approaching from opposite directions on a narrow road when the collision occurred. He said he wonders if the drivers of both vehicles were wearing night-vision goggles and if their vehicles were equipped with adequate lights or markings.

"Can you prevent this? I don't know. I'd like to see the official investigation," said Bushart, who recalled that the first serviceman from his Michigan county killed in Iraq died in a vehicle accident. That was Marine Maj. Kevin Nave, who suffered fatal injuries in March when a Marine amphibious assault vehicle drove over him in his foxhole, the Pentagon said.

Death lurking

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