Even as US ground forces in Iraq face a fresh spate of enemy attacks, statistically they confront a bigger challenge that strikes when least expected: accidents.
Since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, mishaps have claimed the lives of 26 troops - or three-quarters of the US military fatalities in that country. If this rate of accidental deaths (compared with hostile losses) goes unchecked, such fatalities could within a few months surpass the number of troops killed in combat during the war.
On Saturday, three US troops from a unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division were killed and six others were injured in a traffic accident, adding to the already high toll from vehicle crashes in Iraq. The soldiers were traveling in a light-medium tactical vehicle on a road between Mosul and Tikrit in northern Iraq, according to wire reports of a military statement.
The losses come amid a jump in serious US military accidents worldwide, with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all reporting significant increases over the past two years. In a terse memo, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called last month for a 50 percent across-the-board cut in mishap rates for all Defense Department activities in the next two years.
"World-class organizations do not tolerate preventable accidents," he said in the May 19 memo. The initiative covers all Defense activities - including those of military personnel both on- and off-duty, active duty, Reserve, and National Guard forces, and all civilian employees.
At current rates, in fiscal 2003 Marines are having their worst year for serious on-duty accidents in 11 years, and the Navy in five years, according to official safety statistics. Meanwhile, the Army's number of serious on-duty ground accidents - as well as resulting fatalities - have more than doubled so far this fiscal year.
The biggest causes of accidental military deaths - both in Iraq over the past month and around the world - are aircraft and vehicle crashes.
In Iraq, helicopter crashes took seven American lives over a span of 10 days in May. Three soldiers were killed May 9 when their UH-60 Black Hawk medical helicopter crashed. Four Marines perished May 19 when their CH-46 helicopter went down shortly after takeoff. In addition to the seven, another Marine died attempting to rescue his comrades.
Worldwide in fiscal 2002, the number of Class A aviation accidents for all services nearly doubled to 98 compared with 53 in fiscal 2001, while deaths resulting from the crashes rose to 82 from 65. (Class A aviation accidents are defined as those that cause fatalities or permanent total disabilities, at least $1 million in property damage, or destroy the aircraft.) So far in fiscal 2003, the rate of such accidents has exceeded that of the same period last year, with 63 crashes and 67 deaths to date.
Pentagon officials attributed the bulk of the air crashes to human error. "For aviation accidents, human error is a factor in about 80 percent of the mishaps," DoD safety officials told the Monitor in a written statement.
Meanwhile, traffic accidents are on the rise, killing 12 American troops in Iraq in the past month alone. Humvees rolling over, heavy trucks jackknifing or smashing into other vehicles, a tank slipping into a river - each week brings new reports of nonhostile hazards.
Around the world, the rate of on-duty ground accidents has also increased for every military service but the Navy. Pentagon officials say the causes of motor-vehicle mishaps are similar to those in civilian populations. "Accidents are usually related to speed, alcohol, drowsiness, late night driving, and weather conditions," according to the DOD statement.
In Iraq, mishaps involving guns and munitions are another source of noncombat deaths. Over the past month, unexploded ordnance that detonated unexpectedly has killed six troops, while accidental gunshot wounds have left three dead.
Such losses, occurring after the end of major combat operations and involving many troops who have not served on the front lines, have devastated families. Commanders in Iraq have warned for vigilance against such mishaps, with some saying the hardest letters to write are to parents whose son or daughter has died due to a preventable accident.
The new Pentagon accident-reduction initiative will be led by David Chu, Undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. "We are making an effort to collect real-time information on incidents, share the information with decision-makers who apply best practice solutions or technologies, and then hold all levels of the organization accountable for future mishaps," Dr. Chu's office said in a statement. "Some commercial technologies and business best practices are directly applicable to DoD operations and several new applications will likely be pursued."