Deaths from illness, accidents and suicide still high for troops

By Bryan Bender | The Boston Globe
May 3, 2009

WASHINGTON - The 130,000 American 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 numbers highlight the dramatic reduction of violence in Iraq over the past year. But they 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 dying in circumstances that often seem preventable.

Between September 2008 and April 2009, 72 troops died in Iraq from accidents, illness or suicide, compared to 67 who died in action, according to officials at the Pentagon. It was the first extended period during which insurgents did not pose the greatest threat in the six-year conflict.

In response to the growing number of deaths and injuries occurring outside combat —most of which were attributed to accidents — 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 also has begun new drills, such as a simulation that teaches troops how to escape if their Humvee rolls over.

Officials said they have made strides in controlling some types of accidents, such as rollovers.

But those declines have been offset by increases in weapons accidents and suicides. As a result, the number of deaths by nonhostile causes has remained fairly steady — 100 to 175 per year — throughout the Iraq war.

Compared with past conflicts, the percentage of nonhostile deaths is at a historic high — 20 percent of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have been caused by nonhostile wounds.

In Afghanistan, nonhostile deaths make up almost half the total.