By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
BAGHDAD — Non-combat U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have fallen for three years — largely because of fewer vehicle accidents — and account for the smallest percentage of fatalities for any war except the Korean conflict.
A USA TODAY analysis of Pentagon data shows 105 U.S. troops died in non-combat incidents, including suicide and illness, in the year ending June 30 — 11% of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq for that period. During the first year of the war, there were 193 non-combat deaths, about half of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
The falloff in non-combat deaths comes amid a spike in battle fatalities. There were 939 U.S. combat deaths in the year ending June 30, the most for any 12-month period of the war. In the first year, 387 troops died in combat.
Until World War II, non-combat deaths — from disease, cold and other causes — outnumbered those on the battlefield, said Malcolm Muir, a Virginia Military Institute historian.
Non-combat deaths in Iraq are dropping because troops do little driving unless they are on missions, said F. Andy Messing, executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, Va.
Unlike past campaigns, U.S. forces in Iraq are largely confined to fortified bases and combat outposts. "People just aren't going out unless it's for a specific mission," said Messing, a retired Army Special Forces major. "It's a very different environment than in the Vietnam War or even the first Gulf War."
Leading causes of non-combat deaths in Iraq are vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds — accidents and suicides — and air crashes. The number of troops killed in vehicle accidents fell from 67 in the first year of the Iraq war to 23 in the most recent year, Pentagon data show.
Another factor: medical advances that allow them to be quickly airlifted to Germany and improve survival rates. It's "an extraordinary change in medical doctrine," Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.
The smaller percentage of non-combat fatalities in Iraq — 645 of 3,631 total deaths — contrasts with the 1991 Gulf War. Then, more troops died outside of combat than in fighting, 235 vs. 147.
"That war was very short and relatively chaotic," said Dennis McBride, president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies outside Washington.
In the current war, troops have had time to learn. "On flying missions, lessons get passed down to crews," improving safety, McBride said.
It wasn't until World War II, when medicine had vastly improved, that battlefield deaths outnumbered non-combat deaths, Pentagon figures show.