More U.S. troops lost limbs in 2011 than in any previous year of fighting since the 9/11 attacks, recently published Pentagon data show.
The grisly toll, 240 cases of deployed troops with at least one arm or leg amputated, appears to mainly reflect the ongoing troop surge in Afghanistan, along with an increased emphasis on foot patrols in areas where insurgents are active.
Amputation cases were up from 196 in 2010 and exceeded the previous high of 205 during the 2007 Iraq surge, according to figures published this month by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. The Marine Corps was hit hardest by far, with 129 Marines suffering amputations in 2011. The Army, which has more troops in the country, had 100 amputation cases. Six sailors and five airmen also lost limbs.
But there’s a flip side to the grim statistics, officials say. The rising numbers are also believed to reflect recent advances in battlefield first aid, medical treatment and protective gear that make the current conflict “the most survivable war in the history of combat,” according to Adm. William Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, speaking Jan. 31 at the Military Health System Conference in Washington.
In previous wars, or even several years earlier in the current one, some of the amputation cases would likely have been battlefield fatalities, said Col. Jonathan Jaffin, chief of the Army Surgeon General’s Dismounted Complex Blast Injury Task Force. From 2010 to 2011, though amputations increased, total U.S. troop deaths in from combat fell to 368 from 437, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.
“These are grievous injuries, yes, but when you see them back here with their families having survived, these guys are all grateful to be alive,” Jaffin said.
The task force also found an increase in severe injuries in recent years. It sounds bad, Jaffin said, but actually means that troops are surviving worse injuries than before. Better and more widely distributed protective gear, including groin-protecting armor that many troops began receiving in 2011, are helping stop injuries to vital organs that previously could have proved fatal, Jaffin said.