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Friday, February 02, 2007

The DoD's Obscure Definition of 'Casualty'

From the New York Times:

For the last few months, anyone who consulted the Veterans Affairs Department’s Web site to learn how many American troops had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan would have found this number: 50,508. But on Jan. 10, without explanation, the figure plummeted to 21,649.

Which number is correct? The answer depends on a larger question, the definition of wounded. If the term includes combat or “hostile” injuries inflicted by the enemy, the definition the Pentagon uses, the smaller number would be right.

But if it also applies to injuries from accidents like vehicle crashes and to mental and physical illnesses that developed in the war zone, the meaning that veterans’ groups favor, 50,508 would be accurate.

The problem here is honestly reporting what is happening with our troops in a clear and understandable way to the American public. While the NYT cites the 'wounded' definition being the crux of the problem, I think it's the military definition for 'casualty' which needs greater inspection.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

Most average people should not be expected to figure out for themselves that casualties reported by our Defense Department consist only of those who received "hostile" wounds in battle.

Most of us would think that anyone riding in a convoy in a war zone who gets severely wounded in an accident, or is incapacitated and unable to return to the combat zone due to PTSD, would be counted a casualty of war.

Not so -- even though the DoD's own definition for 'casualty' includes these injuries and more. From the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (last updated on January 5, 2007) [pdf]:

Casualty: Any person who is lost to the organization by reasons of having been declared dead, missing, captured, interned, wounded, injured, or seriously ill.

This battle over classification of our wounded has been raging for a while now, actually. In 2004, CBS' 60 Minutes ran the story of one soldier who didn't appreciate his battle zone injuries being downgraded by the DoD:

[In January 2004, Chris Schneider's] unit was providing security for a supply convoy traveling through 100 miles of dangerous Iraqi desert. He was riding in a two-and-a-half ton cargo truck, armed to the teeth. ...

Schneider saw another convoy coming in his direction - a line of HETS (heavy equipment transports), big rigs on steroids, hogging the road. The first HET just missed hitting his truck. The second one did not.

"It threw me up over my vehicle, over the HET and about 50 feet into the field on the left," says Schneider. "When I landed, the next HET in line had locked up their brakes to keep from rear ending the one that we hit. And when he came to rest, the first set of tires on his trailer were parked on my pelvis. And the second set had my lower leg wedged in it to the axle. I've been told a rough estimate of approximately 120,000 to 140,000 pounds."

Today, Schneider walks with a limp, on his artificial leg. But even though he was injured while on a mission in a war zone – and even though he’ll receive the same benefits as a soldier who’d been shot - he is not included in the Pentagon’s casualty count. Their official tally shows only deaths and wounded in action. It doesn't include "non-combat" injured, those whose injuries were not the result of enemy fire.

"It's a slap in the face. Although it was through no direct hostile action, I was on a mission that they’d given me in hostile territory. Hostile enough that we had to have a perimeter set up at the time of my accident to prevent from an ambush or an attack," says Schneider. "For those of us that were unfortunate enough to get injured. Whether it was hostile action or not, we're all paying the same price."

Apparently, the casualty counters aren't listening.

More from the NYT:

About 1.4 million troops have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and more than 205,000 have sought care from the veterans’ agency, according to the government. Of those, more than 73,000 sought treatment for mental problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.

No one disputes that more 50,000 troops have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan or that nonhostile injuries can be serious. Of the more than 3,000 deaths that have occurred, 600 have been listed as nonhostile.

The Pentagon generally directs reporters to, which lists counts of the wounded and dead. The deaths are divided into hostile and nonhostile, but the injuries include just those “wounded in action.”

Another [military] site on the Web shows diseases and nonhostile injuries. It is the source of the higher counts.

Does the military think the American people just can't handle the truth? Or is it that they worry about exposing the lessons of war's true costs that honest casualty figures unflinchingly relate?

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