Pentagon Underreporting War Injuries?

Soldiers from Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment help each other across a muddy canal after a predawn raid on a village near Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007. AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

Veterans groups and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama say U.S. government officials are obscuring the actual number of wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by leaving out of some public documents troops who suffer non-combat injuries.

From the Pentagon Web site to press materials handed out at the opening of an amputee center in Texas last week, the number of wounded in the wars often circulated publicly is around 23,000.

That number only accounts for those wounded in combat. When troops from those wars who were wounded in other ways are counted, the number more than doubles, to about 53,000.

That latter number is not heavily circulated by the Pentagon. Recently, a Defense Department official publicly criticized a researcher who used it and pressured another government agency to change a public document to report the smaller number.

Obama, a presidential hopeful, wants the government to be more straightforward in reporting on the wounded. He has introduced legislation with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe to require the Veterans Affairs Department and the Defense Department to "start keeping honest figures on our troops and the potential future costs of the war."

"This is a clear pattern by VA and DOD to conceal the escalating human and financial costs of the two wars from Congress, the press and the public," said Paul Sullivan, veterans advocacy director with Veterans for America.

Non-battle wounds can range from injuries in vehicle accidents to illnesses. Some are sports injuries that need care outside the war zone. Many of the wounded return to duty.

"It doesn't make a difference whether you were hit by enemy fire, or injured because your vehicle crashed, or got sick because of serving in a war zone," Obama said in a statement. "The effects on the soldiers and their families are the same. And the impact in terms of the current fighting force and future demands on the VA are also the same."

Some non-battle wounds can be just as disabling as those inflicted in combat. Dave Autry, deputy national director of communications for Disabled American Veterans, told the story of a soldier riding in the back of a truck when it went off a bridge and into an Iraqi canal.

This soldier, who suffered crushed legs and an injured spine, is not among those listed in the Pentagon's more widely circulated tally, Autry said.

The Pentagon updates its casualty totals for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars daily at www.defenselink.mil.

Clicking on "press resources" or "casualties" on the home page leads to a chart that lists the dead and wounded from combat totals but not totals for the non-battle wounded.

A separate, harder-to-find Pentagon Web site that listed casualties by type for each war had all the wounded. Last week, the number of non-combat wounded was dropped from the chart, produced by the department's Statistical Information and Analysis Division.

Since November, the VA had been reporting about 50,000 wounded from the wars on a Web site fact sheet for media. It changed that number last month to about 21,000 after hearing from the Pentagon, VA spokesman Matt Burns said.

Burns said only combat wounded are supposed to be in the tally.

President George W. Bush's proposed budget increased funding for veterans' medical care from $29.3 billion to $34.2 billion. It anticipated VA providing medical care to nearly 263,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 2008.

All Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are guaranteed two years of health care at VA when they return from the war. Those with injuries connected to their service get health care treatment beyond the two years.

Also, all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans injured while serving in the wars are eligible for monthly disability payments, regardless of whether they were injured in combat. The amount of the payments is based on the level of disability.
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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