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ARLINGTON, Va. — Young Marines returning from a quick, successful war may be feeling superhuman, and could take risks that would kill them.

So Corps leaders are taking steps to make sure Marines do better than they did after the 1991 Gulf War and stay safe.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Moody, executive assistant for Marine Corps Safety, referring to the training Marines undergo to become fine-tuned warriors and the swift defeat of the Iraqi military with relatively few U.S. casualties.

“Their perception of risk will be changed by this,” Moody said. “They already go out and think they’re invincible. We teach them they are capable of doing anything. … And we’ve seen, they’ll come home with a different attitude. The success will mean they’ll be willing to accept greater risks because they were so successful in the war.”

About 100 Marines die each year in off-duty accidents. “That’s a needless loss of life, and it’s awful if you think about it,” he said.

“We can’t afford to needlessly lose 100 Marines a year.”

The “greatest challenge,” as Moody puts is, are male Marines between 18 and 26 who account for 72 percent of the Marine Corps population, but 83 percent of off-duty fatalities.

The Navy and Marine Corps is taking a “multipronged attack on this … to reconstruct the force when they come back,” tackling messages from safe driving to responsible spending of extra money they’re likely to have, getting reacquainted with families and dealing with stress and depression.

Plans are in the works to have chaplains, psychologists and family-service advocates speaking to returning Marines and their families.

“The message has to be crafted in such a way that it’s palatable to the 18- to 20-year-olds,” Moody said. He hopes messages will be ready in time to be shown on ships bringing sailors and Marines home from the war.

“What could be better than showing it there? We’d have a captive audience,” he said.

There are several messages in the making. The Corps received permission to film a safety video to the lyrics of alternative rock band Barenaked Ladies’ “Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At the Wheel.”

“They’re more popular than Lawrence Welk,” Moody joked of the conductor and host of the long-running song and dance TV show popular with the geriatric set.

Marines will have available to them more money since most have been unable to spend while away and have extra earnings for serving in a combat zone.

“They come back and buy the fastest car, the biggest motorcycle, whatever. We want someone to be there to them make sound financial judgments, someone to remind them how to manage their money.”

Moody wants powerful messages, delivered with resonating images.

One under consideration is an image of a young widow cradling a baby at Arlington National Cemetery with the words: “He chose, we lost. Don’t drink and drive.”

Another might be a shot of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall, and the caption: “There are no memorials for Marines who die in car crashes.”

However they deliver the message, Moody said, leaders want to impart on Marines that they are professionals on and off duty. The Corps has set aside up to $100,000 to develop a marketing plan to deliver such public service announcements.

Gen. Tommy Franks had his war, and now the Corps faces one of its own, Moody said, paraphrasing a message by commandant Gen. Michael Hagee.

The 1991 experience

Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there was a surge in on-duty and recreational accidental deaths and a return to pre-war rates for off-duty accidents, he said.

Before the war, the on-duty annual fatality accident rate was 9.13 per 100,000. Six months after it ended, the number jumped to 12.83.

“Those numbers might not seem a lot, but to the Marine Corps, that’s six more dead Marines, and probably means a lot to the six mothers of those dead Marines,” Moody said.

“Whether it’s six more, or five less, those are pretty big numbers.”

Before deployments, there were 40.63 off-duty deaths per 100,000 per year, a rate that, not surprisingly, dropped to an annual 3.99 per 100,000 during the war. Six months after it ended, the rate was 34.48 deaths per 100,000 per year, showing a disappointing return to pre-war rates, he said.

There also was a “significant increase” in the recreational death rate, which rose from 6.62 pre-war to 9.46 postwar, he said. Incidents included drownings, falls from cliffs, and deaths from sky diving and riding recreational all-terrain vehicles.

In 1991, 94,000 active duty Marines fought in Desert Storm, said spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Michael Gianetti. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, there are 56,000 in Iraq and 67,000 Marines in the area of operation, he said.

In crafting the messages, they are leaning on several studies done following the Gulf War. There are more than 90 federally funded studies in various stages on Gulf War health issues, ranging from exposure to chemical weapons to contact with depleted uranium, the effects on servicemembers’ immune systems and the effects on mental health.

The Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services each also have funded projects to study the effects of stress on health, and have done roughly 75 projects related to the Persian Gulf veterans.


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