The unreported cost of war: at least 827 American wounded
Julian Borger, Washington
Monday August 4, 2003
US military casualties from the occupation of Iraq have been more than twice the number most Americans have been led to believe because of an extraordinarily high number of accidents, suicides and other non-combat deaths in the ranks that have gone largely unreported in the media.
Since May 1, when President George Bush declared the end of major combat operations, 52 American soldiers have been killed by hostile fire, according to Pentagon figures quoted in almost all the war coverage. But the total number of US deaths from all causes is much higher: 112.
The other unreported cost of the war for the US is the number of American wounded, 827 since Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
Unofficial figures are in the thousands. About half have been injured since the president's triumphant appearance on board the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln at the beginning of May. Many of the wounded have lost limbs.
The figures are politically sensitive. The number of American combat deaths since the start of the war is 166 - 19 more than the death toll in the first Gulf war.
The passing of that benchmark last month erased the perception, popular at the time Baghdad fell, that the US had scored an easy victory.
According to a Gallup poll, 63% of Americans still think Iraq was worth going to war over, but a quarter want the troops out now, and another third want a withdrawal if the casualty figures continue to mount.
In fact, the total death toll this time is 248 - including accidents and suicides - and as the number of non-combat deaths and serious injuries becomes more widely known, the erosion of public confidence is likely to continue, posing a threat to Mr Bush's prospects of re-election, which at the beginning of May had seemed a foregone conclusion.
Military observers say it is unusual, even in a "low-intensity" guerrilla war such as the situation seen in Iraq, for non-combat deaths to outnumber combat casualties.
The Pentagon does not tabulate the cause of those deaths, but according to an American website that has been tracking official reports, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 23 American soldiers have died in car or helicopter accidents since May 1, while 12 have been killed in accidents with weapons or explosives.
Three deaths have been categorised as "possible suicides", three have died from illness, and three from drowning. The rest are unexplained.
Wounded American soldiers continue to be flown back to the US at a relentless rate, in twice-weekly transport flights to Andrews air force base near Washington.
Hospital staff are working 70- or 80-hour weeks, and the Walter Reed army hospital in Washington is so full that it has taken over beds normally reserved for cancer patients to handle the influx, according to a report on CBS television.
Meanwhile, at the nearby national naval medical centre in Bethesda, new marine injuries are delivered almost daily by a medical plane known as the Nightingale.
The Pentagon figure for "wounded in action" in Iraq is 827, but here again the total number of injuries appears to be much higher.
The estimate given by central command in Qatar is 926, but according to Lieutenant-Colonel Allen DeLane, who is in charge of the airlift of the wounded into Andrews air base, that too is understated.
"Since the war has started, I can't give you an exact number because that's classified information, but I can say to you over 4,000 have stayed here at Andrews, and that number doubles when you count the people that come here to Andrews and then we send them to other places like Walter Reed and Bethesda, which are in this area also," Col DeLane told National Public Radio.
He said 90% of injuries were directly war-related.
Some of that number may involve double-counting - if a soldier stays at the Andrews clinic on the way to Washington and then again on the way back to the war or back home, for example. But the actual number of wounded still appears to be much higher than the official figures.
"When the facility where I'm at started absorbing the people coming back from theatre [in April], those numbers went up significantly - I'd say over 1,200," Col DeLane said.
"That number even went up higher in the month of May, to about 1,500, and continues to increase."
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