Persian Gulf War Casualties: An Accounting

By Kolb, Richard K. | VFW Magazine, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Persian Gulf War Casualties: An Accounting

Kolb, Richard K., VFW Magazine

"The loss of one human life is intolerable to any of us who are in the military. But, I would tell you that casualties of that order of magnitude, considering the job that's been done and the number of forces that are involved, is almost miraculous... It will never be miraculous for the families of those people, but it is miraculous."


Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery stands a London plane, a majestic hybrid tree. At its base is a commemorative black granite stone dedicated on Feb. 28, 1992. The marble marker is inscribed with these words: "To the brave hearts who gave their lives, may we all know the peace for which they died."

Though countless pages have been written about the 1991 Persian Gulf War in the last decade, virtually nothing deals with the circumstances surrounding how the Americans died in the war. Such an accounting is long overdue.

During that brief campaign, 146 Americans were classified as killed in action (KIA). Fatalities due to hostile action resulted from a variety of causes, the least of which was direct enemy fire where opposing forces were engaged in combat.

A hostile death is officially defined by the Army as one that "occurred in the combat environment, with combat conditions being the direct or indirect cause of the death. A helicopter crash caused by evading enemy fire or a soldier stepping on a mine while maneuvering against the enemy are two examples of this type."

Tragically, a full 24%, or 35, of American lives were lost to "friendly fire." In military parlance, this is also known as "blue-on-- blue" or fratricide. These deaths are considered hostile because those involved "thought they were shooting at the enemy." Moreover, of the 476 Americans wounded in action (WIA), 72 (15%) also were under such circumstances.

Mines and cluster bomblets proved more deadly than Iraqi guns. Well after the cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991, GIs were still dying from hidden ordnance. In fact, some 20% of GI casualties were caused by mines and unexploded munitions.

The Army, which sustained two-thirds of the hostile fatalities, had them among a wide range of units (see accompanying chart). But a few incidents accounted for significant casualties. Logistical, aviation and engineer outfits bore a disproportionate share of deaths from hostile action.


The single greatest loss of Operation Desert Storm occurred on Feb. 25-200 miles behind the front in Saudi Arabia. When an Iraqi Scud missile hit the transient barracks in Dhahran, 28 soldiers were killed. The 14th Quartermaster Detachment, an Army Reserve water purification outfit from Pennsylvania, suffered 14 deaths. The remaining 14 were from five other units.

Equally hard hit was the Air Force 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). Fourteen crew members of an AC- 130H Spectre gunship (call sign Spirit 03) were KIA when it was shot down by an Iraqi surface-to-air-- missile (SAM) during the battle of Khafji on Jan. 31. It went down in the Gulf.

During this same engagement, the Marines suffered their worst casualties--all to "friendly fire." When the battle for Khaki erupted on Jan. 29, conditions were chaotic around Observation Post 4 (the Saudi police station at Al Zabr).

A Maverick missile fired by an Air Force A-10 aircraft destroyed a light armored vehicle, killing seven men of the 3rd and 1st Light ArmoredInfantry battalions. Also, one Marine vehicle destroyed another with a TOW missile, killing three leathernecks of the 1st Bn., 9th Marines and one of the 1st Combat Engineer Bn.

Including another Marine killed by a Marine aircraft a few days later, fully 50% of that service's hostile deaths were in the Khafji fighting. Twelve of the total 24 Marines were KIA in Kuwait's liberation.

All told, the desert battleground appears to have been deadliest for those aboard helicopters. …

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