FAYETTEVILLE — An enduring challenge of the U.S.-led wars of the past 11 years has been the military’s inability to draw battle lines, with troops at risk of attack on city streets and in rural villages, in farm fields and behind fortifications.
It frustrates Karen Morin, too, that while the Army couldn’t define the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan, it could always make the distinction between a combat and a noncombat death. When her son, Spc. Steven Elrod, was killed with six other soldiers whose truck taking detainees back to their base in Iraq fell 40 feet off a bridge and flipped over, the Army classified the losses as noncombat.
That means no Purple Heart for Elrod or the others, including those who survived the crash on Sept. 10, 2007, some with severe injuries.
“The military took good care of us after Steven’s death,” Morin said last week. “But ... you shoot yourself in the foot during combat, you get a Purple Heart. But you have a freak accident on the road and you don’t get a Purple Heart.”
Of the 6,442 deaths so far in the fighting that began after the 2001 terrorist attacks, 1,375 – 21 percent – have been classified as “non-hostile,” and 825 as accidental, according to defense department reports.
The reports say 171 men and women from North Carolina have died in the post-9/11 wars, 33 of them in non-hostile incidents. At least 24 were classified as accidents.
Many accidental deaths appear to be the result of vehicle and aircraft crashes and weaponry mishaps. There also have been electrocutions, explosions, boat accidents and falls. And 416 non-hostile deaths are still listed as “unreported/unknown/miscellaneous,” making it impossible to tell whether they were the result of accidents, illnesses, homicides or some other cause.
On this Memorial Day weekend, families of those who died outside of combat say their loved ones are worth honoring, too.
Feeling left out
When it presents posthumous awards for bravery in combat, the military often releases detailed accounts of events in which troops died. But with some accidents and other noncombat deaths, details never are released, even to family members of the dead.
Such secrecy frustrates families, undermines the military’s credibility and suggests that these deaths are less noble, says Donna Janeczko, who founded an online support group for families who have lost loved ones in noncombat military incidents, including accidents.
“We’ve been sold all these years this idea that it’s so glorious to die in combat,” said Janeczko, who lives in Fincastle, Va.
To this day, she said, in some small towns across the country, when names are added to monuments to war heroes, those who died in accidents or by other means outside of combat are purposely left off.
“It reinforces this false notion that some people seem to cling to: that there is an honorable way to die and a dishonorable way to die. Unless they were committing a crime when they died, it’s never dishonorable. They joined the military, and they put on a uniform, and they were willing to die in combat. Isn’t that good enough?
“If they were run over or electrocuted or murdered, does that take away the honor?”
If the public makes a distinction at all between combat deaths and accidents, it’s because Americans have a low tolerance for preventable deaths in the military, says Richard Kohn, a former Air Force historian who is now a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“We have an all-volunteer Army,” Kohn said. “These people are hard to come by. We have to recruit them. Once we recruit them, we have to train them, and then we have to go to extra lengths to retain them. So these are precious resources. You don’t want to lose them, and you certainly don’t want to lose them in accidents.
“Americans are willing to suffer casualties in war if it’s necessary, and if we have a plan and we’re going about it in a way to win. But to use a term from the Vietnam War,” Kohn said, “American people don’t want their kids wasted.”
Problems with safety
Tod O’Leary believes his son’s accidental death could have been prevented.
Cpl. Daniel T. O’Leary, 23, was supposed to have been home with his family in Youngsville on leave on Feb. 23, 2010, but he had a buddy who needed to be back in the U.S. at the same time. So O’Leary stayed in Iraq a couple of weeks longer and was riding in a fuel delivery truck that hit a barricade and flipped over, crushing him.
Only after Danny’s death did Tod O’Leary learn that his son, a truck driver, had been through two improvised bomb explosions and at least one other vehicle rollover while on deployments, suffering injuries that required hospitalizations. Danny also had earned a Bronze Star, given for bravery or meritorious service, that his father had not known about.
By 2010, O’Leary says, when it had been dealing with IEDs and vehicle rollovers in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, the military should have been installing better safety equipment on its vehicles. The military told O’Leary that as the truck flipped, Danny slipped out of his seatbelt.
“I don’t think they do enough to protect our soldiers,” O’Leary said. “If they had better safety measures, I’m certain Danny would not be dead today.”
The military recognizes that accident rates increase during deployments; one study showed that during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, the accidental death rate was elevated by 56 percent over the peacetime rate for active-duty personnel.
George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the Army tries to learn from all noncombat deaths to try to reduce their likelihood in the future. But at the unit level, he said, a troop loss is a troop loss.
“The tragedy of the loss, the impact of the reduction of combat power, and the personal grief that is felt at the unit level is still of great impact” no matter the cause of death, Wright said. “If a helicopter crashes in Afghanistan ... that crew is no less dead than had it been shot down by an RPG or anti-aircraft weapons.”
The Army still honors those soldiers in memorial ceremonies and in the return of the bodies to the United States at Dover Air Force Base. Death benefits are the same for combat and noncombat fatalities.
“And when they are laid to rest,” Wright said, “a general officer still gets down on bended knee before the next of kin with a folded flag and says, ‘On behalf of a grateful nation, we thank you for your loved one’s service.’ ”