WASHINGTON — Despite official assertions of progress in Afghanistan, American battle casualties remain stubbornly high, and the severity of the physical and psychological wounds suffered by young Americans is actually increasing.
So far this year, more than 5,000 American troops have been wounded — about one third of all those injured in Afghanistan since 2001.
The U.S. battlefield death toll in Afghanistan has tapered off slightly, from 437 last year to 348 through Dec. 5 of this year. There were 5,241 soldiers wounded in battle last year, and 5,020 so far this year, according to Pentagon casualty data.
The high number of wounded reflects both the continuing intensity of the fighting, as well as the inability of the U.S. military to defeat roadside bombs and protect the troops against them.
Despite a $22.4 billion Pentagon effort over the past six years, these improvised explosive devices remain the biggest single cause of American casualties, killing or wounding more than 34,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to Defense Department data.
In Afghanistan this year, IED attacks are up 7 percent over last year, according to the U.S.-led command in Kabul.
The damage they cause is unrelenting. Among the 96,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan, amputations are at an all-time high, as are the serious medical side effects of severe trauma.
The number of returning servicemen and women officially diagnosed with traumatic brain injury has leaped to an average of 647 new cases a month, up from a monthly average of 621 cases in 2010 and 482 a month in 2009, according to Defense Department data. Over the past decade, the Defense Department has diagnosed 229,106 service members with traumatic brain injury.
Military surgeons this year recorded a monthly average of 19.6 cases of amputations, up from 16.3 per month in 2010 and 7.3 per month in 2009.
These injuries are mostly caused by IED detonations, which have also resulted in a sharp rise in genital wounds. One out of five of the wounded evacuated from Afghanistan last year suffered from what the Army calls “genitourinary” injuries. Military medical officials say the numbers are increasing, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, which handles most evacuees, said she could not provide fresher numbers.
The U.S. military also tracks two other indicators of severe injury, and both have risen significantly this year. One is uncontrolled bone growth near the site of a wound, a painful condition called heterotopic ossification. Among deployed troops, cases of heterotopic ossification have reached 10.8 cases a month, compared to 7.3 in 2010 and 5.3 in 2009, the Defense Department reported.
The other post-trauma condition is deep vein thrombosis. These cases rose from 18.8 in 2009 to 20.4 in 2010, to 20.5 per month this year.
A U.S. Army study released last summer detailed the increasing severity of battle wounds suffered by troops in Afghanistan. The report said that the number and severity of these wounds, which include the traumatic amputation of two, three or all four limbs, exceeds anything experienced during the Iraq war.
The rising incidence of these severe wounds comes as Obama administration officials are lauding progress in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, while acknowledging that more fighting remains to be done, said in Kabul on Dec. 14 that “2011 will go down as a turning point” in the war.
With some 10,000 troops already pulled out of Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 due to be withdrawn in 2012, Panetta told troops and diplomats that “we’re working in the right direction.”
Pentagon officials say that the counter-IED effort is becoming more effective, given improved detection technology and a growing number of tips from the Afghan public. U.S. forces are able to find and clear about half of known IEDs before they detonate, said Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman.
“There certainly has been significant progress, both in terms of reversing Taliban momentum and developing Afghan Security Force capacity to ensure these gains remain permanent,” Speaks said. He added that the Pentagon is “confident” it can carry out the planned troop withdrawals by next summer ”while maintaining this momentum and progress.”