By Eric Steigleder and Doug Callahan
VCU Multimedia Journalism Masters Program
More than 20 percent of the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed not by enemy combatants but in “non-hostile” circumstances, including friendly fire, suicide, illness and accidents.
The rate of non-hostile deaths in the U.S. military has been on the rise since the Korean War, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Defense.
During the Korean War, 8 percent of fallen military personnel died in non-hostile deaths, the department’s statistics show. The non-hostile death rate rose to 19 percent during the nearly decade-long Vietnam War. For the War on Terror, it tops 21 percent.
Many factors contribute to the increase, experts say.
Capt. Joseph Davidoski, a Marine who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said friendly fire and fatal accidents may be taking a bigger toll now than in earlier wars.
“The nature of the actual combat is what’s been changing,” Davidoski said. “You know, airstrikes in Vietnam and Korea were very limited compared to what we have now.”
In modern warfare, he said, rapid troop movement plays a significant role – and may increase the risks of accidental deaths.
“The faster everyone’s moving and the greater the force that’s moving, there’s a bigger chance of someone not being sure where everyone is,” Davidoski said.
He said all levels of military training include a strong emphasis on preventing accidents and friendly fire. In addition to the safety training, Davidoski said, all airstrikes occur with a soldier on the ground, guiding the pilot to the correct spot, to prevent inadvertent casualties.
Robert Hodierne, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Richmond, echoed Davidoski’s comments. Hodierne began reporting in Vietnam as a freelance photographer in 1966 – the youngest, fully accredited foreign journalist to cover that war. He has since maintained his status as an expert military reporter, recently returning from assignment in Afghanistan.
He said it’s no mystery why the non-hostile death rate is higher in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think there’s a pretty easy explanation for that, frankly,” Hodierne said. “The early wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War – there was a great deal more actual combat than in the War on Terror.”
According to Hodierne, the decrease in time spent fighting the enemy means more stress-filled downtime for soldiers. He said this may contribute to the rise in accidents and friendly fire.
On a slightly positive note, Hodierne speculated that the rate of illness-related deaths in war has gone down.
Hodierne said he suspects “that if you look at disease, the rate of death in Korea and Vietnam will be higher than it is today. Malaria and other tropical diseases that were common in Vietnam are not common in Iraq and Afghanistan. And our ability to prevent and treat these diseases has improved a lot.”
It’s hard to compare the specific types of non-hostile deaths over time because the Defense Department’s data did not categorize the deaths for earlier wars.
However, the data break down the deaths for the War on Terror. As of late November, 5,790 U.S. military personnel had died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those deaths, 1,244 were classified as non-hostile:
- 757 soldiers died in accidents
- 123 from illness
- 45 from friendly fire
- 261 from suicide or other self-inflicted causes
In the remaining cases, the cause was undetermined or is pending.
Suicides among U.S. servicemen have attracted national publicity and concern. But Hodierne said the suicide numbers for past conflicts might have been underreported.
“I suspect the suicide number would be relatively constant throughout these wars,” Hodierne said, suggesting that wartime suicide is not a new problem.
“It’s a lot harder these days to hide a suicide than it used to be,” he continued. “A troop who kills himself now – everyone in the unit is on Facebook and Twitter and e-mail, telling their friends back home. It was a little easier to hide that in earlier wars.”
Hodierne said suicides have been part of every war he’s covered.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is sometimes a delayed reaction,” he said. “Sometimes it gets to you right at the scene, and you feel a sense of hopelessness, or guilt.”
Many suicides are triggered by psychological issues associated with experiences in combat. Too often, these issues go untreated, said Glenn Sullivan, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Military Institute. Before coming to VMI, he worked with returning veterans at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, Va.
“One of the most important things that the Department of Defense has attempted to do is reduce the stigma of receiving mental health treatment,” Sullivan said. “I haven’t seen terribly much evidence that they have been entirely successful.”
He said soldiers are not just concerned with what their peers think; many are unnecessarily worried that receiving treatment could affect their future in the military.
“There’s a perception among soldiers that if they seek mental health treatment, that it will somehow negatively impact their careers,” Sullivan said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, have made decreasing the suicide rate a priority in recent months. They have called for an increased focus on mental health issues, as well as imploring leaders to take a more pro-active role.
Paradoxically, Hodierne said the increasing death rate from non-hostile causes might be a sign of improved military tactics and technology.
“I think the reason overall that non-hostile deaths have gone up is that the percentage of hostile deaths has gone down. There just aren’t that many people being killed in these two wars from enemy action,” he said.
While approximately 5,800 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost 37,000 died in Korea – and more than 58,000 in Vietnam.
Hodierne attributed this in part to better weaponry, more advanced medical care and improved protective armor.
But the nature of modern warfare requires the acceptance of a new normal, he continued. In the near future, he says, large militaries won’t be squaring off in combat with other large militaries for extended periods of time. In this new reality, the rate of hostile deaths would go down, while the non-hostile rate increases.
“What you are going to see is a lot of asymmetrical warfare, with insurgents or guerrillas, if you will,” Hodierne said. “The United States will be engaged in a lot of counter-insurgency wars for the next few years.”
While there may be several explanations for why the percentage of non-hostile deaths is rising, Dr. Sullivan said one thing is clear in war zones:
“It’s simply dangerous being there, even if nobody’s shooting at you.”
Here is a spreadsheet summarizing the data cited in this report. That file includes a list of all U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This spreadsheet shows what percentage of fallen soldiers from each state died under non-hostile circumstances. About four in 10 of the military casualties from Wyoming, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, as well as from the Virgin Islands, died “non-hostile” deaths.
What About the Persian Gulf War?
During the course of our research, we ultimately decided to not include the data from the Persian Gulf War.
Unlike the other conflicts, the Persian Gulf War was short, lasting only about six months. Because of its brevity, the U.S. Defense Department’s data appear to be distorted, and perhaps misleading.
Since most of the casualties from events in the war did not happen until after the conclusion of hostilities, it appears as if the Persian Gulf War had the highest percentage of non-hostile deaths. This resulted in unreliable numbers.
According to data on the Defense Department’s website, the non-hostile death rate for the Persian Gulf War calculates to a staggering 61 percent. During the course of the war, there were only 383 casualties, 235 of which were non-hostile.
However, after the end of the conflict, 1,565 more soldiers died. The Department of Defense did not categorize these additional 1,565 deaths as hostile or non-hostile. Had the department done so, we speculate that the resulting percentage would have been in line with the statistics from other conflicts.
About the Data
We retrieved the data for this story from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Personnel and Military Casualty Statistics website.
We used Excel to compare the casualty information from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn.
For the purpose of comparison, we combined the data from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn. We then calculated the percentage of deaths that were the result of non-hostile causes from each war.
In addition, we analyzed detailed summary spreadsheets from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn, concerning specific types of non-hostile deaths.
In reporting this story, we sought comment about non-hostile deaths from numerous government agencies. They included the U.S. Department of Defense, the Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center, the Virginia Department of Veteran Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. All of those agencies either declined to comment or failed to respond.