A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper Washington Correspondence, Lisa Zagaroli

By Quill

In her three-day report “Military Menace: Deadly Vehicles,” The Detroit News Washington reporter Lisa Zagaroli examined the unnecessary dangers posed to American soldiers by outdated military vehicles.

The July 11, 2004, report “Army truck accidents kill, hurt thousands” featured statistics on – and reasons behind – accidental military deaths.

Outdated designs, a lack of safety features and poor training are contributing to the unnecessary deaths of U.S. soldiers in military vehicles.

With increased mobilization of troops for the Iraq war, the Army had its worst accident record in a decade last year: 833 crashes, 50 deaths and 223 injuries.

Accidental deaths, including accidents in military vehicles, are such a problem, both in war and peacetime, that the Pentagon launched a major initiative to cut the number in half by 2005. Military vehicle accidents account for about 19 percent of all military accidents.

Zagaroli’s reporting found that local commanders sometimes ignored their own rules about vehicle safety, including a standing order for soldiers to wear seat belts at all times.

“None of the data I needed was ready at hand,” said Zagaroli. “Unlike the civilian auto industry, there are few safety experts who know anything about military trucks and their crashworthiness. Those who knew were either Pentagon personnel who wouldn’t talk, or military contractors who were similarly reluctant to discuss the issue. … I was forced to comb through the casualty lists and then try to contact the families of soldiers who had been in accidents and who could provide more information on how their loved ones died or were injured. This eventually supported the basic premise, but it required a tremendous amount of old-fashioned, police-reporter style legwork.”

The reports drew attention from Congress.

“Sen. Carl Levin, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, demanded an explanation from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld,” said Zagaroli. “The public and the military are fixated on high-tech weaponry … robotics, sensors, laptop command and control, and the like. This series showed the backdrop to all that: soldiers risking their lives in 1950s technology.”