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DoD Inspector General Reviewing Noncombat Deaths

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 1997 – The DoD Inspector General Office is looking into military deaths not related to combat or terrorism.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen directed the study in response to a June 12 letter from Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry expressing concern about peacetime deaths in the military, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said Aug. 7.

"Obviously, one accidental death is one too many, and the secretary felt it was appropriate to look into this," Bacon said.

"[Cohen] wants to get a handle on how bad the problem is," he said. "He's asked the inspector general and others to look into safety procedures. You can never do enough to stop accidental deaths. It may turn out that there are a few more things we can do."

Concern about accidental deaths followed a series of articles, entitled, "Casualties of Peace: Deaths in the Military," published in the Boston Globe in June. The series focused on deaths due to aircraft accidents, private motor vehicle accidents and suicides, Bacon said.

In 1980, there were 117 noncombat deaths per 100,000 service members -- about 2,390 deaths out of 2.05 million service members. In 1996, there were 68 noncombat deaths per 100,000 servicemembers -- 1,020 noncombat deaths out of 1.5 million servicemembers. Of those, 228 service members died in privately owned vehicle accidents and 190 service members committed suicide.

"We all know that helicopter crashes occur, drownings occur; there are training accidents," Bacon said. "Training in the military is extremely rigorous. We try to approximate combat conditions as much as we can. Many of the people in the military are young; they're operating highly sophisticated equipment, and there's a lot of room for problems. But we work extremely hard at keeping those problems to a minimum."

Deaths by auto accident is a fact of life in society as well as in the military, Bacon said. "We have programs to deal with drunken driving and driving when people are too tired or driving too fast, but like the rest of society, we can do more."

The military's suicide rate is about equal to the suicide rate in the population as a whole, Bacon said. "Suicides do occur in the military, but not at an unusually high rate," he said.

While the inspector general has not yet set the focus of the study, aircraft accidents will not be included, Bacon said. Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry conducted an investigation of aircraft accidents within the last few years that revealed a fairly dramatic decline in death rates from that cause, Bacon said.

"The major accident rate per 100,000 hours flown has gone from 2.04 in 1990 to 1.50 in 1996," Bacon said. "The number of aircraft destroyed in those accidents has dropped from 143 in 1990 to 67 in 1996." The number of deaths from all types of accidents has declined, Bacon said.

The inspector general's study of noncombat-related deaths began in June. No completion date has yet been set, Bacon said.

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