The Editor & Publisher has been following an anomaly in official US casualty statements for a couple of weeks, and has now received official confirmation of an upsurge in noncombat deaths.
A team of U.S. army safety experts are in Iraq studying this trend, which has coincided with extended 15-month deployments for troops, a senior military official said this week.Non-combat deaths over the August/September period would be far lower were it not for three accidents, the actual causes of which are still obscure.
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, operations director of the Joint Staff, said commanders in Iraq were concerned enough about the spike in non-combat deaths that it has asked for an assessment by the army team, according to an Agence France Press report.
According to Pentagon figures, 29 soldiers died in August for non-hostile reasons, and another 23 died of non-combat causes in September. Shockingly, this compares with seven in August last year and 11 in September 2006.
The military has official confirmed more than 125 suicides in Iraq with many others under investigation.
"We don't yet know what may have caused an increase in the non-battle casualties," Ham said.
"That's why the commanders in Iraq have asked for the Army Safety Center to come analyze that and to map out the way ahead, to maintain focus on safety for all the troops on the ground," he added.
The website Iraq Coalition Casualties, which keeps a database of official announcements and numbers, shows that 19 of those 29 August noncombat casualties were sustained in two helicopter crashes, neither of which have so far only been ascribed any detailed cause other than non-combat crash. In September, one incident which is simply described as a vehicle rollover accounted for seven deaths out of the 23, including Sgts. Yance T. Gray and Omar L. Mora - who had both recently become well known as two of the authors of an NY Times op-ed which was critical of the war's conduct. In all three cases, the DoD announcements simply say that "the circumstances surrounding the incident are under investigation".