Surviving a War Abroad Only to Die Back Home Behind the Wheel

For many troops who have served in U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat is just one of many dangers they face. Upon returning home, they have higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and mental illness. Now we can add another threat to the list:  Car crashes.

Sgt. Mark Ecker II, left, recovered from the loss of his legs in Iraq only to die behind the wheel of his car in Massachusetts. Photo: ##http://www.myspace.com/136122138/photos/36797901#%7B%22ImageId%22%3A36797901%7D##Myspace##

The Washington Post published an astonishing article yesterday about the little-known epidemic of automobile deaths among combat veterans. Those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are 75 percent more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than civilians — and that’s after they leave service. We’re not talking about while they’re driving around IED-infested streets in war zones. We’re talking about the road from mom’s house to Wal-mart.

Here are the horrifying facts:

Motor vehicle crashes have long been a serious problem in the military. From 1999 through 2012, a period spanning peacetime and the two wars, as many active-duty military personnel died in noncombat motor vehicle crashes both on and off duty (4,423) as were killed in the Iraq war (4,409).

Further research is needed, but the evidence suggests that “motor vehicle crashes will join suicide and interpersonal violence as a fatal, if indirect, consequence of the war on terrorism.”

An in-house study by the insurance company USAA shows that the rate of at-fault crashes is 23 percent higher for Army vets in the six months after a tour than in the six months before they left. And each tour compounds the risk: “Troops with three deployments had 36 percent more accidents, compared with 27 percent more in the twice-deployed and 12 percent in people deployed only once.”

People familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder probably won’t be surprised that after troops return home, they are easily distracted by obsessively checking around them for potential dangers. They often drive aggressively. They often drive drunk. They fear using seat belts because they could “get in the way of a rapid escape.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs is working with vets on safe driving and now offer vets driver-rehabilitation programs at 40 locations across the country. The Army gives out a brochure called “Post-Combat Driving: The American Road.”

When we talk about the importance of multiple transportation options, we often talk about people who can’t drive, or don’t, or shouldn’t. Senior citizens sometimes fall into that category. Children always do. People with disabilities. Who would have guessed that America’s combat vets fit into that category? But it appears that they have much to gain from modes of transportation in which a momentary lapse of judgment or a sudden feeling of panic wouldn’t have such dire consequences.

  • Anonymous

    I think saying that veterans should’t drive is taking it bit far, but they do need to adjust to the fact that they are not in a combat zone anymore. Like the National Guard who apparently thinks that “keeping the convoy together” is more important that not running over pedestrians in NYC.

  • How much of that number is from motorcycle deaths? Motorcycle deaths are far, FAR more common per driver than car deaths (both are way too high), and I recall hearing a local radio program discussing the disturbing rate of motorcycle-related deaths among active military members, and possibly veterans as well here in Washington state.

  • PC

    Thank goodness nobody is ever killed or injured in train or bus accidents, eh?

  • RD Frazier

    This is so sad. Our veterans have so many other issues to deal with on returning home after putting themselves in harms way to protect us. They have experienced horrors that we cannot imagine.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The rate would have to be WAY higher to make any difference, because almost nobody rides motorcycles. And the Army, at least, has compulsory beginner and experienced rider training. Don’t know about the other branches. Veterans returning from combat deployments are required to take the courses again. What with all the required training, I’d be surprised if Army motorcycle deaths and injuries were even as high as the general population, much less significantly higher.

    I would be interested to hear about any hard data, though.

  • BobaFuct

    As the husband of an Iraq combat vet, I have experienced this first-hand. My wife has become a saner driver over the 4 years we’ve been together, but when we first started dating, I was afraid to drive with her. Her thing was that she always had to be passing other cars…sitting in traffic, even if it was moving quickly and smoothly made her really antsy, so she drove very aggressively to get past everyone else.

  • vet

    Lots of veterans ride motorcycles.

  • I’m not claiming that the majority of deaths are motorcycle-related, just questioning whether it might be a contributory factor. There are about 4,500 motorcycle deaths every year, just for reference.

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