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NEW YORK -- When newspapers reported this week on poor medical and living conditions for Americans injured in Iraq, it might have come as a shock for some readers. For months, the press has barely mentioned non-fatal casualties or the severity of their wounds.
E&P reported in July that while deaths in combat are often tallied by newspapers, the many non-combat troop deaths in Iraq are virtually ignored. It turns out that newspaper readers have also been shortchanged in getting a sense of the number of troops injured, in and out of battle.
"There could be some inattention to [the number of injured troops]," said Philip Bennett, Washington Post assistant managing editor of the foreign desk. "And obviously if there is, it should be corrected. Soldiers getting wounded is part of the reality of conflict on the ground. I think if you were to find or discover that those figures are being overlooked, that would be something we'd want to correct."
Few newspapers routinely report injuries in Iraq, beyond references to specific incidents. Since the war began in March, 1,927 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, many quite severely. (The tally is current as of Oct. 20.) Of this number, 1,590 were wounded in hostile action, and 337 from other causes. About 20% of the injured in Iraq have suffered severe brain injuries, and as many as 70% "had the potential for resulting in brain injury," according to an Oct. 16 article in The Boston Globe.
Current injury statistics were easily obtained by E&P through U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon, so getting the numbers is no longer a problem. According to Lawrence F. Kaplan, author of an article on injured troops in the Oct. 13 issue of The New Republic, this information has only recently been readily accessible. "Pentagon officials have rebuked public affairs officers who release casualty figures, and, until recently, U.S. Central Command did not regularly publicize the injured tally either," Kaplan wrote.
The difference between "hostile" and other injuries, according to Army spokesman Maj. Steven Stover at the Pentagon, is that "one is gonna get you a Purple Heart, and one's not. One's for wounds inflicted by the enemy. It could be any type of injury inflicted by someone who intends you harm."
A United Press International investigation, published Oct. 20, revealed that many wounded veterans from Iraq, under care at places such as the Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, must wait "weeks and months for proper medical help" and are being kept in living conditions that are "unacceptable for sick and injured soldiers." One officer was quoted as saying, "They're being treated like dogs." The Army has said it is attempting to remedy the situation.
In The New Republic, Kaplan reported on the state of many injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. According to Kaplan, modern medicine and rapid response techniques allow many wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in previous wars. Many of these wounded soldiers are left with debilitating injury or loss of limb. Newspapers that only track hostile combat deaths fail to capture the human toll of thousands of troops left injured and crippled, he wrote.
"The near-invisibility of the wounded has several sources," Kaplan wrote. "The media has always treated combat deaths as the most reliable measure of battlefield progress, while for its part the administration has been reluctant to divulge the full number of wounded."
Even now, when the injury information is easily available, many newspapers neglect to report or keep a tally, as an informal survey of some top papers has shown. This comes on the heels of reports Wednesday that attacks on American troops in Iraq had increased in recent weeks from an average of 15 to 20 attacks per day to about 20 to 25 attacks a day, with a peak at about 35 attacks in one day, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
According to an Oct. 3 report by UPI, nearly 4,000 soldiers had been medically evacuated from Iraq for non-combat reasons.
As for the tally of total deaths in Iraq, most of the media continues to only cite those killed in hostile action. On Oct. 20, for example, The New York Times reported: "Since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq on May 1, 106 American soldiers have been killed." But this number represents only those killed in combat by hostile fire. A total of 200 American troops have been killed in this time period from all causes, such as vehicle accidents, drowning, and suicides, a figure that is rarely mentioned in the press.
Source: Editor & Publisher Online Seth Porges (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter for E&P.
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