Improvised explosive devices aren't the only threats to U.S. forces

Improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on deployed U.S. servicemembers fighting the war on terrorism. In Iraq alone, more than 1,790 Americans lost their lives to these deadly bombs from July 2003 to June 2008, and hundreds more, such as Staff Sgt. Matt Slaydon from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., have been injured. But at least Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, and other casualties of this on-going battle didn't sustain their wounds in vain.

The same can't be said for all U.S. armed forces warriors.

While the nation mourns its heroes who are wounded in battle, many people barely blink when it comes to the number of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines the United States is losing to non-combat preventable mishaps each year right at their own doorsteps. In roughly the same period as the IED statistics, the Air Force alone saw 411 of its men and women die in preventable mishaps, according the Air Force Safety Center. Of those, 290, or 71 percent, happened in an all- too-common place ... cars, trucks, vans, sport utility vehicles and motorcycles.

"Year after year, too many of our people are dying unneces-sarily," said Col. John W. Blumentritt, Air Education and Training Command director of safety. "Historically, we lose more people to preventable mishaps than we do to enemy forces."

Yes, IEDs conjure fear, but the losses the services have suffered on the roadways should also "raise the hair on your neck," the colonel said.

"Many times, our men and women do everything right and still become a victim of someone else's poor decisions on the road," Blumentritt said. "However, all too often, our servicemembers are their own worst enemies."

The safety director explained that too many of the nation's defenders drive too fast, too fatigued, too distracted, too aggressive or after one too many alcoholic beverages. Then if they forget to strap on a seat belt or wear a motorcycle helmet, the errors in judgment continue to mount and head for a tragic conclusion.

Case in point, one of the Airmen who died this fiscal year was a passenger in a vehicle where the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The Airman wasn't wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. In another fatality, an Airman who had been drinking alcohol lost control of his vehicle, veered off the road and struck a tree. Then there was an Airman who hit a guardrail while riding his motorcycle, was ejected and fell 125 feet, with his body striking a telephone pole before landing hard in a grassy area.

While driving mishaps are by far the worst, they aren't the only way Airmen have succumbed to accidents.

This fiscal year alone, the Air Force lost a first lieutenant who struck a tree while snow skiing; a master sergeant who was working on his car when it fell off the hydraulic jack and crushed him; a staff sergeant who had been drinking at a local bar, then sat on a railroad tie next to train tracks and was hit by a train; a one-striper who was accidentally shot in the abdomen at his off-base residence; and two Airmen who were involved in recreational water tragedies - one while kayaking, the other while snorkeling.

"These Airmen didn't die because they were targeted by a terrorist's bomb while courageously facing the enemy on the battlefield," Blumentritt said. "In the case of preventable mishaps, all too often they were killed by their own hands. But that's why we call them preventable mishaps; the good news is that we can do something about them simply by doing risk assessments and making better choices."

-- Tim Barela