Safe As Houses II

An AP story in The New York Times titled “Official: Risk to Guardsmen Exaggerated” quotes Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the Army general in charge of National Guard forces at a breakfast with defense reporters saying that misrepresentation is the reason the Guard is having trouble meeting recruitment numbers.

The dangers faced by American troops in Iraq have been exaggerated, adding to the difficulty of recruiting soldiers at home, the Army general in charge of National Guard forces said Tuesday.

The casualty rate for Guardsmen is low compared with any previous armed conflict, said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum.

He said he recognizes that every death is a tragedy for that person’s family. “But I lose, unfortunately, more people through private automobile accidents and motorcycle accidents over the same period of time,” he added.

“It is dangerous, but it is — I shouldn’t say it to this group but I’m going to — it is misrepresented, how dangerous it really is,” Blum said during a breakfast with defense reporters.


Blum said more than 250,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen have been mobilized for active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 262 of them have been killed in the global war on terrorism. Pentagon casualty statistics show more than 90 percent of those deaths were in Iraq.

Those are rough numbers. Ninety percent of 262 is 235 (rounded down). That’s a 0.094% mortality rate for all Guard members over the 28 months of the Iraq war, which translates (conservatively) to roughly 1 death in every 1,100 mobilized Guard members. These numbers can’t account for the amount of time in-country time per Guard member. The actual number would certainly be higher, because most of the 250,000 National Guard troops in the figure cited have not been deployed for the entire 28-months of the war, and some of the deployments have not been in Iraq.

The population of the United States is approximately 300 million (according to the US Census Bureau). According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics records of motor vehicle fatalities, an average of 42,551 people died in the three year span between 2001 and 2003, the last years for which they have figures online.

In a 28-month period, that translates to about 99,285 deaths in the US from motor vehicle fatalities. The vehicle fatality mortality rate for the population as a whole over the same period is 0.033%, or 1 of every 3,000 Americans.

That’s a little more than one-third the mortality rate for National Guard members serving in Iraq. In other words, NG members are almost three times more likely to die serving in Iraq than your average American is to die in a vehicle fatality. Keep in mind that I’ve estimated the fatality rate in Iraq very conservatively, and that more accurate numbers from the National Gard on the numbers of its members deployed to Iraq and the lengths of their deployments would only increase the number.

There are classes of people who are higher-than-average risks for vehicle fatalities, and it’s conceivable that drivers who are in the National Guard could have a mortality rate three times higher than that of the population as a whole. However, a November 2004 article from Military Medicine titled “Motor Vehicle Fatalities among Men in the U.S. Army from 1980 to 1997” should have some bearing on the National Guard as well. These statistics are from that report:

Crude motor vehicle fatality rates for the ages of interest in this study were 36.3 per 100,000 personnel per year in 1980 and 15.7 in 1997. For males, crude fatality rates declined from 38.0 per 100,000 personnel per year in 1980 to 17.6 in 1997, whereas female rates declined from 19.6 to 5.5 per 100,000 personnel per year over the same period. Further examination of motor vehicle fatality trends for males showed declines for all groups from 1980 to 1997.

The overall age-adjusted motor vehicle fatality rate for 17- to 44-year-old males in the Army dropped from 40.8 per 100,000 in the 1980-1982 period to 20.6 in 1995-1997, a 49.5% decrease. The overall age-adjusted fatality rate for males in the same age range in the U.S. population dropped from 38.1 per 100,000 in 1980-1982 to 23.3 per 100,000 in 1995-1997, a 38.8% decline (Fig. 1).

Translating the lowest overall mortality number (15.7 per 100,000 per year) in the Military Medicine study to a percentage value yields an annual fatality rate of 0.016%, or 0.037% for the 28-month period discussed above.

That rate is two-fifths the 0.094% combat mortality rate over the same period in Iraq. It’s possible that members of the National Guard have a vehicular fatality rate 250% higher than men and women of a similar age and disposition in the Army, but if that’s true, there’s a potentially serious problem lurking in those statistics.

Moreover, the fatalities in Iraq don’t preclude the vehicular fatalities at home; they are in addition to the vehicular fatalities. And if Lt. Gen. Blum is telling the truth about more National Guard personnel dying on the roads of the United States than in Iraq — which is itself a rate that is two-and-a-half-times greater than that at which average Americans die in cars and on motorcycles — then perhaps there are other reasons for parents to be concerned about their children entering the National Guard.

The Oregonian‘s version of the story (not online) included material contributed by reporter Mike Francis specific to the Oregon National Guard (pointing out that their units have suffered a higher-than-average rate for the Guard) as well as information not included in the Times version.

See the original “Safe As Houses”