by Mark Benjamin
WASHINGTON — Nearly 17,000 service members medically evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan are absent from public Pentagon casualty reports, according to military data reviewed by United Press International. The Pentagon said most don’t fit the definition of casualties, but a veterans’ advocate said they should all be counted.
In addition to those evacuations, 32,684 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan now out of the military sought medical attention from the Department of Veterans Affairs by July 22, according to VA reports obtained by UPI. The number of those visits to VA doctors that were related to war is unknown.
The military has evacuated 16,765 individual service members from Iraq and Afghanistan for injuries and ailments not directly related to combat, according to the U.S. Transportation Command, which is responsible for the medical evacuations. Most are from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Pentagon’s public casualty reports, available at defenselink.mil, list only service members who died or were wounded in action. The Pentagon’s own definition of a war casualty provided to UPI in December describes a casualty as, “Any person who is lost to the organization by having been declared dead, duty status – whereabouts unknown, missing, ill, or injured.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Pentagon gave a different definition that included casualty descriptions by severity and type and said most medical evacuations did not count. “The great majority of service members medically evacuated from Operation Iraqi Freedom are not casualties, by either Department of Defense definitions or the common understanding of the average newspaper reader.” It cited such ailments as “muscle strain, back pain, kidney stones, diarrhea and persistent fever” as non-casualty evacuations.
“Casualty reports released to the public are generally confined to fatalities and those wounded in action,” the statement said.
The Pentagon casualty reports do list soldiers who died in non-combat-related incidents or from illness. But service members injured or ailing from the same non-combat causes — the majority that appear to be “lost to the organization” — are not reflected in those Pentagon reports.
A veterans’ advocate said the Pentagon should make a full reporting of the casualties, including non-combat ailments and injuries. “They are still casualties of war,” said Mike Schlee, director of the National Security and Foreign Relations Division at the American Legion. “I think we have to have an honest disclosure of what the short- and long-term casualties of any conflict are.”
A spokesman for the transportation command said that without orders from U.S. Central Command, his unit would not separate the medical evacuation data to show how many came from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We stay in our lane,” said Lt. Col. Scott Ross. But most are clearly from Operation Iraqi Freedom where several times as many troops are deployed as in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has reported 1,019 dead and 7,245 wounded from Iraq. And 27,571 of the veterans who have sought health care from the VA served in Iraq, according to the documents reviewed by UPI.
Among veterans from Iraq seeking help from the VA, 5,375 have been diagnosed with a mental problem, making it the third-leading diagnosis after bone problems and digestive problems. Among the mental problems were 800 soldiers who became psychotic.
A military study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July showed that 16 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq might suffer major depression, generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Around 11 percent of soldiers returning from Afghanistan may have the same problems, according to that study.