About 30 percent of U.S. fatalities in Iraq come from accidents

Friday, January 16, 2004

The sorrow is the same. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, have died while serving in Iraq, though not in battle. These lives were lost to car rollovers, drownings, heart attacks -- the nonhostile deaths that make up nearly a third of U.S. casualties.

As the tally of all troop fatalities closes in on 500, the percentage of such deaths may seem high. But such casualties have always been part of war -- and, in some cases, nonhostile fatalities have made up an even greater portion of total deaths.

U.S. fatalities in Iraq stood at 496 Thursday, with 343 killed in hostile action and 153 from nonhostile causes, the defense department said.

Nonhostile deaths are all those lost to a military operation in which the cause is "not directly attributable to hostile action or terrorist activity," according to Defense Department definitions. Many have been car crashes, though some troops have drowned in the Tigris River, collapsed during physical training, fallen ill or been shot.

In the Persian Gulf War in 1991, more than half of the 382 total in-theater deaths were nonhostile. In Vietnam, nearly a fifth of the 58,200 deaths were not from battle; in World War II, it was more than a quarter of the 405,399 deaths.

In the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, nonhostile deaths outnumber those in battle: 70 of the 100 fatalities have been from nonhostile causes.

Industrial hazards

In earlier wars, disease was the big danger, as in the Civil War, when more than half the Union deaths were not from battle or wounds. In modern, industrial wars of trucks, tanks and large numbers of troops, accidents are the worry.

"Basically, what's killing soldiers is sitting around the camp," said Miguel Centeno, a sociologist at Princeton University who studies war. "If you spend any time in a village of soldiers, all operating a great deal of heavy machinery and with live ammunition, you're going to get deaths. It's really amazing it's so few."

Even without the stresses of a war, troops die. Defense department data show that in 2000, 46 of every 100,000 service members lost their lives to accident, illness, homicide or suicide. Some 125,000 troops are now stationed in Iraq.

And the longer troops work on a mission, the greater the danger, said retired U.S. Army Gen. William Nash, who commanded U.S. forces in Bosnia and an armored brigade in the 1991 Gulf War.

"There's an exposure factor," he said.

None of the statistics matter to Simmons. While the Army told The Associated Press on Thursday that her husband died of cardiac arrest, she said the military has never given her a firm answer on her husband's death, citing, variously, a seizure, heat stroke and cardiac arrest. And she feels removed from other mourning families at Fort Campbell.

"For me to actually talk to another surviving spouse, our situations are similar but different," she said. "Even though my husband still died over there, I don't think I'd be treated in the same way if he had died in the line of fire by the enemy."

"I have to stay strong for the sake of my kids," she said, particularly her 7-year-old, Ayana. "She keeps having dreams about her daddy coming home. With her going to school with a lot of military kids whose fathers are coming home, it's really hard for her."

For Pfc. Jeffrey Braun's family, the compassion from the community and beyond -- they've gotten letters of support from across the country -- have meant a lot. Still, nothing changes the hard facts. Braun died Dec. 12 from a gunshot wound that was not in battle. The death remains under investigation, his mother said.

"All I know is that my family is devastated," said Meredith Braun. "I no longer read the newspapers. I no longer listen to the news."

She, her husband and daughter instead take some consolation in carrying on the wishes of Jeff, 19, who was actively involved in helping start an orphanage in Honduras, where he was born before he was adopted by the Brauns.

Each family seeks solace where they can find it.

"We were actually thankful that it wasn't a traumatic incident such as a shooting or a bombing," Lowry said. "We were able to receive his body back whole, and have an open casket and able to see him one last time."

"Most families don't get that chance."

Associated Press Writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.

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