Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Military Accidents: Non-Combat Fatalities Show Dangers of Equipment Failures

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Military Accidents: Non-Combat Fatalities Show Dangers of Equipment Failures

Article excerpt

War zones can be dangerous and deadly for soldiers - even when not actively engaging the enemy.

Through statistics from the Army Safety Center, the Savannah Morning News found about 200 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq died because of military accidents.

That was an important story for us because we're home to Fort Stewart's 3"1 Infantry Division, which was redeploying to war zones after its lightning-fast march to Baghdad from Kuwait in the first weeks of the 2003 Iraqi conflict.

Managing Editor Dan Su wyn, however, wanted us to take the local story a step further by looking into how these accident statistics compared with other times of war.

What we found had national implications, as we learned about accidents that continued to plague the Coast Guard's helicopters, and questions about the Army's chain of command.

Russian roulette

When I first got the military-homeland security beat in June 2004, the region was hosting the G-8 Sea Island Summit. As a result, the Coast Guard patrolled the skies and seas with an expanded security mandate.

Our request to accompany them on boat trips was no problem, but air training and patrol requests were denied. The reason: repeated aircraft engine trouble.

Researching the subject, I found a recent U.S. General Accountability Office report on the problem. We printed a story quoting the GAO saying pilots played Russian roulette every time they climbed into the Dolphin helicopter cockpit.

A few weeks later, Richard O'Reilly, then of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at an IRE conference in Atlanta. His subject: How to get aviation mishap data from different military services. After his panel discussion, he told me I could use the same techniques for the Coast Guard. [O'Reilly is now a consultant with IRE on special database projects.]

I banged out a Freedom of Information Act request for the Coast Guard data, and then went to the Army Safety Center Web page to check stats on Apache and Black Hawk helicopters stationed here and around the world.

After finding a page that broke down accidents by aircraft type, the year they occurred and other interesting parameters, I copied and pasted the tables and saved them in a file.

Little did I know that my research would very soon come into play.

That night, the Army had the first Apache fatalities of the year - and the first for that helicopter type at Fort Stewart.

That began my persistent requests to the military for the database structure and field list of the different databases. My requests were ignored.

Meanwhile, there was a second Apache fatality, this time in Iraq. I found basic details online at the safety center site. But when the center found out I was digging there, it removed the data from the public pages. Center personnel said the pages should never have been on the public access portion of the Web site to begin with, and they have not returned.

I did receive a CD of mishap tables from the center, but it had no fields for aircraft types, making some of my queries, present and future, unanswerable.

Dayton Daily News investigative reporter Russell Carollo, who used similar data to track major Apache problems about five years ago, had some advice.

"This database is almost worthless," he said. "You need to go back and get them to give you aircraft types."

I finally got a record layout (a complete list of fields) from the Army and put together another FOIA request for a fuller database.

Vietnam comparisons

Because I was scheduled to head to Iraq as an embedded reporter when the 3rd redeployed, we decided to publish stories without waiting for all the requested data.

With senior editor Steven Austin turning what could have been bland articles into narrative gems, our three-day package included the personal story of one of the pilots killed in the local accident, disaster details of the only deep-attack Apache mission attempted during the 2003 Iraq invasion and the questionable developmental history of the Apache using GAO, Congressional Research Service and other government reports. …

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