It was soon noted that after American troops withdrew from combat in Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014) there were still a lot of non-combat deaths in the combat zone. There were still some combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but the combat casualties were very low and statistically, there was more of getting killed because of accidents or diseases. Outside the combat zones, the rate of accidental deaths for troops did not change. But when you look at the history of military fatalities during peacetime, you will note that the rate of such deaths has come way down since the Vietnam War of the 1960s. The reduction in these non-combat losses was gradual and the result of new technology as well as new procedures for how troops operated (on and off duty). These changes accelerated in the 1990s and especially after 2001. More tech and more solutions for ancient killers of wounded troops.
Meanwhile, the public paid more attention to more newsworthy fatalities. During the first three years of the 2003 Iraq War, 21 soldiers were killed accidentally by other soldiers. That's about one percent of all deaths, which is two-thirds the rate of the Vietnam War. These "accidental homicides" occur when troops fire their weapons or set off explosives by accident. This happens a lot in combat. While the rate of such deaths is lower than the 1.5 percent of the Vietnam War, the army and marines continue to seek ways to make the dangerous business of working with weapons day and night, less dangerous. After 2003 the army came up with a novel idea. They began issuing rifles, and blank ammo, to new recruits three days after they started basic training. Moreover, the troops took these weapons with them everywhere. Just as they would when they got to Iraq or Afghanistan.
In the past, troops, of course, had their weapons with them when in a combat zone. But when not in a combat zone, troops rarely handled their weapons. The rifles and such were locked safely away in the "arms room," and, for most troops, only taken out every week or so for cleaning, and once or twice a year for a trip to the rifle range. Combat troops would take their weapons out of the arms room when they trained, but the rifles and machine-guns still spent most of their time locked up in the arms room. After 2003 recruits spent their first three months in the army carrying around an M-16, and ammunition. The ammo was special training rounds, or “blanks”. These contained propellant, but no bullet. If one is fired, it sounds close enough to the real thing. If someone is really close (a few inches/40-70cm) to the barrel when the blank fires it can cause blast injury that can take an eye out, burst an eardrum and so on. The blanks were deadly enough to have the desired effect on the troops.
Initially, each company of trainees would experience several accidental rifle firings a day. But after a few weeks, you might go several days without one. In combat zones, the troops tend to become casual about all those rifles, pistols and explosives (especially hand grenades). Accidental firings are rather common, but most do not result in death (or even wounds.) Grenades and other explosives were another matter.
During Vietnam, Korea and World War II, for every hundred "accidental homicides," there were about 110 cases of "accidental self-destruction" in which a soldier is killed by mishandling a weapon, often a grenade. But by 2005, the U.S. Army had lowered these accident rates by over a third compared to previous wars. It was believed that having an all-volunteer force would contribute to a lower rate, but it turned out it was more a matter of training and experience. So now, when troops come out of their basic training, they already have several months of experience living with weapons every day. NCOs have noticed the difference, that the new guys are more at ease, and more safety conscious, with their weapons when they arrive in a combat zone.
The policy of having basic training recruits (basically civilians) carry around rifles and blank ammo days after they began training could have been done over half a century earlier because the circumstances for accidents were present since World War I. Even before the Vietnam War there were situations, like South Korea in the early 1960s, where there was a real threat of North Korean raiders (“suicide commandos”) who were sent to the south, usually via small subs that delivered the commandos at night via a remote beach on the east coast just below the border/DMZ. These raids occurred often enough for some special precautions to be taken. Units that went out into the countryside for several days of “field exercises” each month were issued real ammo and grenades, just in case. Naturally, this led to the accidental firing of weapons, especially when convoys moved through rural areas where the northern commandos liked to operate. Troops had rifles and pistols that were loaded (magazines with live rounds). Turned out the most accident-prone weapons were the M-60 machine-guns even combat support units (especially engineer and artillery) were issued. When a convoy moved out for a long road trip the large trucks (2.5 and 5 ton) with open (canvas covers removed) cargo beds, had a soldier standing right behind the driver's cab (which was often enclosed) with a loaded M60 belt-fed 7.62mm machine-gun. These troops rarely fired these machine-guns but knew how to load, fire and clean them. Commanders soon learned that machine-guns, used this way by inexperienced (to machine-guns) troops often led to accidents. When loading (putting the ammo belt into the machine-gun) the weapon and cocking it users were rudely reminded that if proper procedure was not followed you could fire off a round or two by accident. Troops with these machine-guns also had to be careful while the truck was bouncing around while traveling on unpaved roads (the usual type found in rural South Korea in the early 1960s) and that could cause accidental firing. Fortunately, in these situations, the accidentally fired rounds exited a machine-gun barrel that was usually pointed upwards and no damage was done, except for the shooter who got yelled at by some combat experienced sergeant who had warned the machinegun operators to be careful. Some kinds of careful you only learn by experience.
There were also problems with the hand grenades these troops were issued. This was noted by a senior officer and World War II veteran who, while driving by a unit preparing for one of these field-exercises, noted some troops, with their rifles slung over their shoulders, casually playing catch with a hand grenade. Shortly after that the troops going out on field exercise were ordered to keep the grenades in ammo boxes and not carry them on their webbing. Not long after that the “enemy commando alert” was declared over and the troops went back to going on field exercises carrying blanks. These commando alerts, and occasional attacks, continued throughout the 1960s and although the real combat was a regular occurrence in Vietnam the troops in South Korea received “combat training” after they arrived and reminders that near the DMZ it was still occasionally a war zone and that caused these troops to pay attention to the weapons handling tips they were given.
Accidental self-destruction was more common in Vietnam during the 1960s, so much so that there was a separate category for it in casualty reports (along with vehicle and other fatal accidents). Some of these accidental self-destruction incidents were bizarre, none more so than the many incidents were army aviation officers (usually young helicopter pilots) came off duty after flying in and out of combat zones in the UH-1 and AH-1 helicopters. This was very stressful work and, as the army pilots liked to remind their air force colleagues, army pilots flew low and without parachutes. These pilots were also armed, usually with a loaded .45 caliber (11.4mm) automatic pistol. Helicopters were often brought down by enemy fire or prevented from taking off because the chopper had been hit. The pilots were then armed ground troops, often in the middle of a firefight and drew their pistols and moved away from the helicopter before the fuel ignited. Some of these pilots kept a loaded M16 with them in the cockpit, but most trained with and depended on the pistol. The pilots often went straight to the officers club after coming off the flight line and the debrief, to get a few drinks to take the edge off. This sometimes led to “quick draw” contests, using their loaded pistols. The safety switches were supposed to be engaged when the pistol was in the holster but sometimes it wasn’t. In any event, there were a lot of pistol accidents and some accidental self-destruction deaths due to that. There were bans on carrying loaded weapons into the officers club which curbed some of the mayhem but some of these officers had booze back at their quarters and the accidental self-destruction continued to occur.
Alcoholic beverages were a traditional stress reliever in combat zones and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the army got the nerve to order boozed banned in the combat zone. This was not popular, but one of the persuasive arguments was the booze was banned on navy ships before World War I and while it hurt morale it did reduce the accident rate. The booze ban was first applied during Balkan peacekeeping missions in the 1990s and it worked. After 2001 that booze ban continued and a replacement stress reliever was discovered as well; violent video games. Yes, that sounds counterintuitive to civilians and even some army psychologists. But studies were conducted and it found that play a violent FPS (First Person Shooter) video game after returning from a violent combat patrol, did soothe the nerves, and kept you sober and safe from accidental self-destruction.
The role of alcohol in accidental deaths among military personnel was long recognized. Even in Vietnam, the first marine units to enter Vietnam saw no action right away and one commander noted that, because his marines had no access to their private vehicles and much less access to alcohol in Vietnam, initially the casualty rate for marines units was lower in Vietnam than back home. That did not last but it also emphasized the role of fast cars, booze and young troops in causing non-combat losses. In Iraq and Afghanistan, where fast driving in urban areas became an accepted tactic for avoiding roadside bombs and ambushes, the army soon implemented special training for that sort of fast and furious driving to make it safer for drivers and passengers. Safety measures for vehicles were also improved, especially since troops often traveled with seatbelts off to allow quick exit if they were halted and under fire. Vehicles were also modified to make it easier for troops in a damaged, from a crash or explosion, to quickly push out a windshield and exit.
Military vehicles, and aircraft were also designed to handle accidents so that passengers had a better chance of survival. The UH-60 helicopter, which replaced the Vietnam era UH-1 in the 1980s, was deliberately designed to be more “crash safe” for crew and passengers when there was a hard landing. Combat aircraft, in general, became safer to operate. This was particularly important for jets that operated off aircraft carriers. These aircraft become much less deadly (for pilots) in the decades after their widespread first use in the 1950s. Landing on a carrier at night (a “night trap”) was still a stressful experience but is something went wrong it was less likely to be a fatal one.
The cumulative effect of all these changes was not dramatic. But if you looked at annual data for non-combat deaths only every tenth year, the change is obvious and over the last half-century has been enormous. But troops and journalists never noted the stark difference. As the old saying goes, in the news business good news isn’t news.