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Quagmire in Iraq: U.S. Casualties Up To 11,700

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Although the number of U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq is rarely mentioned, previous estimates in the media have ranged between 2,000-3,000. The Pentagon now says that in the first year of war in Iraq, the military made over 18,000 medical evacuations–representing 11,700 casualties. We speak UPI’s Mark Benjamin who has been closely following the hidden U.S. casualties from the Iraq war. [includes rush transcript]

News reports and Pentagon briefings emerge daily announcing the death of another U.S. soldier in Iraq.

The number of American soldiers killed since the beginning of the invasion has now topped 600. U.S. authorities have not bothered to count the Iraqi dead, but some estimates put the number as high as 10,000.

But what is rarely heard in the U.S. media or from the Pentagon is the number of wounded U.S. soldiers. Some figures that have been briefly mentioned in the press fall in the range of two to three thousand.

But the Pentagon is now reporting that in the first year of war in Iraq, the military made over 18,000 medical evacuations–representing 11,700 casualties.

  • Mark Benjamin, UPI Investigations editor. He has been closely following the hidden US casualties from the Iraq war — the thousands of servicemen and women who have returned home injured. Last week he was awarded the American Legion’s top journalism award for 2004 for his reporting last fall on the plight of hundreds of sick, wounded and injured soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga. The troops, many of whom served in Iraq, were held in hot cement barracks without running water while they waited, sometimes for months, for medical care.
    - Read Mark Benjamin’s reports here.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, thanks for joining us.

MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with the latest figures that we now have. Can you explain the 18,000, the 11,700, what do these numbers mean?

MARK BENJAMIN: I can do my best. The Pentagon is not putting a lot of meat on the bones of the statistics, but here’s what we do know. The Pentagon’s top health official, William Winkenwerder, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health announced in Congress this week that the Pentagon has made 18,004 evacuations — he used the words “out of theater” from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the first year of the war. Now, the Pentagon has said since he made that announcement in written testimony to a House Panel that some of those evacuations may be one soldier evacuated several times. In other words , a soldier is flown, for example, from Iraq to Landstuhl, Germany or from Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington, for example. And so they’re now saying that while that number seems high, that’s probably 11, 700 individual soldiers. There may be some percentage of those 11,700 who have returned to service — back in Iraq after being ill or injured or wounded or so on — but they’re not saying exactly how many. It’s very difficult to tell. The point is that the casualties are much, much higher than just the number of wounded that the Pentagon is announcing officially, which you’re right, is about 2,000 to 3,000.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does that figure represent?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, the point is that the Pentagon defines “casualty” the same way that Webster’s Dictionary defines “casualty”, which is anybody who is lost to service, lost to the organization and it doesn’t matter whether they’re wounded or hit by a mortar or whether they become sick or get malaria or whatever. If you have person who during the war no longer can fight because of a medical reason, they are a casualty. I think people who watch this war closely, and I think the American people would like to know what the cost of the war is in terms of human life, and illness and sickness and injuries. So, the 11,700 we can assume is much, much closer to the real casualty rate, as opposed to just the people who are sadly hurt in violent attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote Timothy McMichael, a soldier told the Panel on Tuesday, and you can talk about this hearing, how he is on medical hold at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. He says, “I can only say that the uniform consensus is one of frustration, disappointment and anger.” How are these soldiers being treated as they are evacuated?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, there seems to be essentially two paths in this war with respect to soldiers who are hurt or ill or wounded. The Pentagon has gotten very, very good at treating the acutely wounded. So, in other words, the soldier who is hit by the improvised explosive device in Baghdad and sadly loses a leg, the treatment is excellent and very fast in the field. That soldier is evacuated to Landstuhl and maybe goes to Walter Reed. And so the Pentagon has gotten very good at that. What seems to be happening is that the larger majority of illnesses and accidents and so on result in injuries that are not as — I don’t want to use the word “glamorous”, but not as obvious. And we’ve got a lot of people with very injured backs. Sick people with heart and lung problems. Blown knees and shoulders. Or for that matter, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shell shock from the war. There are many, many more of those types of soldiers. Those soldiers don’t go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They go back to their home bases and try to get health care at Ft. Stewart or Ft. Knox or Ft. Carson in Colorado. The care for those soldiers, and there’s many more of them, seems to fade off into the extremely poor. Those soldiers in many cases are waiting weeks and months and months to get proper medical care. More and more of them are complaining they’re being put out of the military without proper compensation for those injuries and illnesses that they believe are associated with their service. Also, I would add, that the Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers have the perception at least they’re getting the shortest end of the stick. Whether that’s true or not is difficult to say, but I would agree with that soldier who said there are more and more senior non-commissioned officers who seem to say that things are bad, and that is a bad sign. The non-commissioned officers, staff sergeants and so on are the ones who make the military tick.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to U.P.I. reporter, Mark Benjamin. Mark, you seem to be one of the few reporters who is reporting on U.S. casualties, on those who are wounded. Why do you think this is?

MARK BENJAMIN: I think part of the reason is that the data that has come out of the Pentagon is very, very bad. We started this conversation by trying to discuss what the 18,004 evacuations from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” really means. The Pentagon is not doing a good job at explaining to the American people what that number means. To give you an example, I, of course, once got — once I got that 18,004 number asked the Pentagon, well, how many casualties does that mean? How many casualties. Casualties as we said, is anybody who is injured or ill or sick or wounded, because of the war. The Pentagon told me that at the Pentagon, they do not keep a centralized database of the number of casualties. They can say what they say the number of wounded are, but not the number of casualties. That makes it very difficult for a reporter, who — you know, we’re trained to try to get the story right — wading through a bunch of statistics on the evacuations gives us a good idea of what’s going on in the war, but not a precise idea. And I think a lot of reporters are frankly put off by the fact that the Pentagon is not doing a good job of communicating what the human costs of this war is.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, what about the suicides?

MARK BENJAMIN: The suicides are — continue to be a troubling story. The Pentagon has now come out with what they say is a Mental Health Assessment Team report of what occurred in Iraq. There have been 24, for example, Army soldiers who committed suicide on the ground in Iraq and Kuwait last year. There’s a lot we don’t know about that story as well. For example, we do not know how many soldiers went to Iraq or Kuwait and then returned to the United States and killed themselves. Critics would say it might be a large number, because a lot of people don’t suffer the traumatic mental impact of the war until afterwards. The way they have defined a suicide is very strange. I know that sounds weird, but for example, there are two levels of investigation. One is there’s an Armed Forces Institute Pathology investigation and there’s a Criminal Investigation division. It’s unclear when the Pentagon is deciding a soldier — they decide it’s actually a suicide. So once again, numbers are very difficult to wade through. The Pentagon has at least admitted that there is a much higher than normal number of suicides on the ground in Iraq and Kuwait than — than there statistically should have been.

AMY GOODMAN: And the figure that you believe would be accurate?

MARK BENJAMIN: It’s very — I — sadly, I feel uncomfortable quoting a figure. I think it’s much, much higher than 24, if you add in soldiers that served in Iraq and Kuwait, that then returned to the United States. For example, there were two soldiers who hung themselves at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one in July and one in January. I don’t know how many more there are. But those are not in the figures of suicides. They both served in Iraq. They both came back to the United States and both hung themselves at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Certainly the Pentagon knows about them, those suicides. They happened at Walter Reed. But they’re not in the statistics. And I’m not sure I understand why.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why? What has the Pentagon said?

MARK BENJAMIN: The Pentagon said that it makes it more difficult to calculate the rate of suicides. In other words, the more soldiers that you put into the numbers, the more difficult it is to, in other words, come up with a denominator. In other words you have a denominator that is the number of soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Kuwait, then you have a numerator of the number who commit suicide. They say it makes more complicated if you start throwing in soldiers that served and came back to the United States. I think a lot of veterans advocates, veterans service organizations have said that’s frankly not the case. Really, you just need to look at what the suicide toll could be from this war. And that includes soldiers that are put on airplanes and evacuated back to the United States and then kill themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, you have written about troops who have been inappropriately deployed to Iraq who are diagnosed with mental problems before they go?

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s correct. There do seem to be — I have obtained an after-action report obtained from the Army Medical Department, I can tell you, from October, 2003, that shows that an undetermined number of soldiers appeared to have been deployed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” with pre-existing mental problems that, for whatever reason, the Army did not pick up on. That can obviously be a problem, because these people are often put into extremely stressful combat situations. It also creates all sorts of other problems. For example, the Army hands out a very controversial malaria drug called larium during the war, and the FDA says you definitely should not give that drug to people with mental problems because the results could be catastrophic. In terms of suicide or mental problems or whatever. So, that’s a — that concerns me quite a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ll continue to follow your pieces, Mark Benjamin, with the United Press International. He has just won top prize from American Legion for his reporting on the troops, those especially who have gotten sick and come home, and how they are treated here. That does it for today’s program.

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Bring the Troops Home & Stop the Bombing: Medea Benjamin on U.S. Withdrawal from Syria & Afghanistan

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