Pentagon Clarifies ‘Non-Combat’ Deaths

By: Joe Strupp

As deaths of U.S. soldiers mount in Iraq, and complaints from GIs stuck in the former war zone and their families grow, the Pentagon is clarifying both its policy for what soldiers can say to reporters and their procedures for differentiating between combat and non-combat deaths.

Some have argued that the military leadership has tried to keep the number of U.S. casualties low by labeling many combat-related deaths in the field as non-combat. (Less than half of the American military deaths in Iraq since May 1 have, officially, come in combat.)

When asked to explain what the exact policy is to determine whether a death is related to combat or non-combat causes, U.S. Army spokesman Peter Christake, based at the Pentagon, said a combat death is any death related to direct fire from the enemy, indirect fire, or artillery, even if the person died of something other than the actual enemy weaponry.

Twenty or more U.S. soldiers have died in vehicle accidents since May, and are considered “non-combat” deaths, despite some reports that many followed hostile actions against the vehicle. But, responding to a hypothetical posed by E&P Online, Christake said that if a grenade were tossed in front of a jeep, causing the jeep to swerve, go over an embankment and into a river, resulting in the drowning death of the driver, it would still be considered combat-related — even if the grenade did not damage the vehicle or injure the driver.

Concerns about military policy regarding soldiers speaking with reporters were raised, as well, when disgruntled U.S. soldiers speaking to the media were reminded by military officials that is against policy to speak ill of their commander or commander-in-chief. A number of soldiers from the Army’s Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division, were reprimanded after airing complaints on “Good Morning America.” Others have spoken to newspapers around the country, most near their home bases, with complaints about having to remain in the war zone so long, despite promises to the contrary.

Military officials said the exact policy for speaking with the press requires that all comments be on the record — to discourage anonymous complaints — but does not bar soldiers from complaining. “Soldiers calling into question senior military or civilian officials is punishable by the uniform code of military justice,” said Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons of the Coalition Press Information Center. “But soldiers complaining is not a problem.”

Fitzgibbons also pointed out that soldiers may not reveal information that could affect security. He added, however, that any unit commander may also order soldiers not to speak with reporters for any reason.

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