Dying for a Paycheck: These Jobs Are More Dangerous Than Military Service

America loves its military. The vitriol heaped on returning Vietnam veterans in the 1960s and 1970s -- most of whom had no choice in the matter of their deployment -- caused such a public backlash that most Americans swung hard from anger to hero worship, and our default reaction to military service has been hero worship ever since. And why shouldn't it be? After all, no other profession explicitly asks its workforce to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Source: User DVIDSHUB via Flickr.

However, just because military servicemen or servicewomen might someday be asked to die in service to their country doesn't mean that they will. In fact, modern military service isn't even America's deadliest job! There are certainly a number of serious factors to consider before joining the military, including the commitment to sign away at least four years of your life and the stress of essentially being on call 25 hours a day (that's not a typo) for your entire enlistment, but if the threat of death is your primary concern, you may want to dig into the realities of U.S. military casualties before making up your mind.

Can you keep the peace and keep your life?
Make no mistake -- people can and do die during military service. The Defense Manpower Data Center, one of the Department of Defense's analytical groups, has recorded 48,834 military personnel deaths from 1980 to 2010, which works out to 1,575 deaths per year. However, the American military is a huge organization, which has never slipped below 1.35 million active-duty servicemembers in any given year across all branches. There were 1.7 million active servicemembers on average per year from 1980 to 2010, and when you add in the full-time equivalent service hours of reserve forces, the United States has fielded nearly 1.9 million full-time equivalent servicemembers each year for the past three decades.

Because enlistment figures fluctuate from year to year, assessing military casualties based on the rate of death per 100,000 serving each year gives us a more consistent picture of the dangers faced by our servicemembers. Over these three decades of tracking, 82 servicemembers per 100,000 have died each year to all possible causes, and the leading cause of death is probably not the one you'd most suspect:


Source: Defense Casualty Analysis System.

Accidents are by far the most consistent danger to military personnel, surpassing all other causes of death in every year tracked except the five (2004 through 2007 and 2010) most identified with major actions in Iraq. In fact, before 2002, the U.S. military endured only two years (1987, when an Iraqi jet attacked the U.S.S. Stark, and 1991, during Operation Desert Storm) of combat-related casualties in excess of one servicemember per 100,000. Accident-related deaths, on the other hand, while in decline since 1980 (reaching a three-decade low of 25.2 per 100,000 servicemembers in 2010), still account for the lion's share of all military deaths, and have been responsible for an average of 40.8 deaths per 100,000 servicemembers per year since 1980.

Had the United States not mired itself in first "liberating" and then policing of Iraq, the average number of combat fatalities would be far lower, as U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan didn't surpass deaths in Iraq until 2009. Even though American troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, total U.S. military deaths in that country are still roughly twice as high as U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan. Despite this uptick in combat deaths, illness (which claimed 14.3 servicemembers per 100,000 per year) and suicide (which claimed 11.8 servicemembers per 100,000 per year) were still greater scourges of the military than battle, which has been responsible for an average of 9.3 deaths per 100,000 servicemembers per year from 1980 through 2010. However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did push the number of combat-related deaths up significantly, to a rate of 27.7 servicemembers per 100,000 per year from 2001 through 2010. This higher fatality rate pushed the overall military death rate up to 93.4 servicemembers per 100,000 per year from 2001 through 2010.

But serving in the military isn't even the most dangerous job in America, even if we focus only on the period after the opening of these two combat theaters. Would you like to know what's more dangerous than military service?

Source: Kyle Rush via Flickr.

Logging: 127.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012
You're a lumberjack, but you might not be OK, because you work in the most dangerous occupation in America, with 45 more deaths per 100,000 workers than the armed forces. In the three decades we've examined, the military never suffered more deaths per 100,000 personnel than the logging industry suffered in 2012. The military's worst year was 2007, when combat deaths hit modern highs of 52.7 per 100,000 servicemembers and total military deaths reached 121.4 per 100,000 servicemembers.

Fishing: 117.0 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012
The high death rate of fishermen (or fisherfolk, if you prefer something gender-neutral) might not be so much of a surprise, as this is a profession that has a reality show -- Deadliest Catch -- that tells you it's dangerous right in the title! The military's annual death rate only surpassed that of the fishing industry in 2007, and its three-decade average death rate is nearly 35 personnel per 100,000 lower than it is for fishing.

If you're looking for job security and personal safety, you'd actually be better off joining the military than working as a lumberjack or in the fishing industry. Military service will -- unless you do something horrendously improper -- guarantee at least four years of pay, which should generally be at least $20,000 per year (pay grade E-3, which is a private first class in the Army or a seaman in the Navy, pays $21,700 per year), much of which will be take-home because of general military policy of providing room and board to servicemembers. Loggers, on the other hand, make a median salary of only $33,600 per year, nearly identical to the $33,400 median salary in the fishing industry. The logging industry is expected to see a 9% decline in its employment numbers by 2022, and the fishing industry is expected to lose 5% of its workforce during the same time frame.

Nearly any military servicemember with career ambitions is likely to earn more than the median logging or fishing salary after several years, and some may even start off earning more -- the lowest pay grade for the officer corps (a second lieutenant in the Army or an ensign in the navy) equates to an annual salary of $34,900.

Combat isn't that common
If you're still concerned about the risk of death in combat, keep in mind that the military won't have its boots on the ground in hostile countries all the time -- at least not as long as voters have a say in the matter and choose to elect less hawkish politicians. Even so, there were still several other jobs more likely to kill you than combat in the military during this period of global police action:


Sources: Defense Casualty Analysis System and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
*Note: military casualty rates are from 2001 through 2010 and pay grade used is E-4. Other occupational casualty rates and median salaries used from BLS data and are current through 2012.

The military certainly isn't the safest place to earn a living, but it's hardly the death trap many concerned parents and nervous would-be enlistees might think. In fact, analysis performed by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that death rates were significantly lower in the Navy (60.9 deaths per 100,000 servicemembers per year) and in the Air Force (47.4 deaths per 100,000 servicemembers per year) from 1990 through 2011 than for the military as a whole -- Marines, at 103.8 deaths per 100,000 servicemembers per year, are taxed harder than any other military branch, but even this heightened death rate doesn't surpass that suffered by logging or fishing workers.

No one should join the military expecting it to be a cushy cakewalk, but at the same time, it's worth keeping in mind that there are deadlier jobs with less job security than military service. There are plenty of other considerations as well. Military life can still be very dangerous, even if it's not deadly, and these casualty figures don't account for grievous but survivable wounds that can have lifelong impacts on a servicemember's life. However, barring another major conflict -- and since it took about 30 years for Americans to get over Vietnam before committing to another long-term fight in Iraq, it seems unlikely that the military will be plunged into a new quagmire any time soon -- we should probably expect military casualty rates to keep falling in the coming years.

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  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 1:25 AM, McSniperliger wrote:

    Logging is unpredictable but I still would say either underwater welding or crab fishing on the Bering Sea could top it.

    Underwater welders can make upwards of $120 an hour for what they do...if the guy regulating your oxygen level doesn't kill you, being zapped by 240 amps or more will.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 8:28 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    This article is absolutely rediculous! ! You are lumping the whole military together like your job is to be the military! Yes you are a part of the military but news flash here you have specific jobs withn the military that you do. Thos jobs are called MOS ok so just like the fisherman are fisherman and the loggers are loggers infantry is infantry mechanics are mechanics just like being in the civilian world. The job of an infantryman because it is in fact a job lol is by far the most dangerous job in the world! If you need any clarification of this, ask any of those loggers and fisherman if they would rather cut down trees and catch fish or if they would rather stand on the front lines and catch bullets? ? Go ahead ill wait for their answer! Thank you to all of the military members who have given the ultimate sacrifice for your country. Lmao thank god I chose being an infantry marine over catching fish! I didnt know all of those evil fish would be out to get me! Man dodged a big on there!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 8:33 AM, duudaa wrote:

    I spent a total of five years working in Afghanistan almost got killed once. When your broke you have to do whatever you can to survive. Next I might have to move to Red China and see if I can get a factory job.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 8:58 AM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    @ marine1234 -

    I would be happy to break down these figures more accurately by branch, by job, or anything else, to give a clearer picture of the differing levels of risk faced in different military occupations (or MOS, as you say). Unfortunately, the Defense Casualty Analysis System only offers data on the military as a whole.

    Sorry it couldn't be more accurate, but that was the best I could do with the data available to me.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 9:32 AM, timon1309 wrote:

    I just wanted to touch on two areas of this article. The first is your sarcastic remark on the word "liberating", well let me try to "liberate" your "liberal mind." I serve 9 years in the military in three different branches ( Marines, Coast Guard and now Army National Guard), just letting you know that I love serving in the military and my country, but I would like to point out how much of a great impact we were in Iraq. We successfully LIBERATED Ramadi and Fallujah from the grips of the Taliban, Al-Qaida and any other anti-american militia, and after many service men died to free these two city from tyranny,this past year, they were taking back by the Taliban and many other small towns as well. The bombing at the Abu Garib prison released hundreds of terrorists that are most likely back on the street terrorizing the Iraqi people.Now mind you all this occurred when nearly all of the Americans troops left Iraq. While we were over there they were too busy being occupied in wanting kill us after we left now they kill innocent people.

    My second comment is your statement on "signing away four years of your life." Why are you making it sound as if the military is that terrible?? I loved it and wouldn't trade it for the world!! Just because you may not like the military, or have the heart (nor balls) in wanting to serve does not give you the right to make the military seem all that bad. You wouldn't like it if I say, "If you want to sign your life away on The Motley Fool," not cool huh? It doesn't help the business if I talk bad about it.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 9:41 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    My whole thought though alex is that the groundside jobs are where all of the true danger exists. If you look at your numbers the marines have the higher death rate per 100k because the majority of the marines are ground pounders they face more danger. The categories that you used basically lumped an infantry marines danger level in with say an air traffic controller from the air force! Again 2 totally different jobs but both part of the military. Obviously you can see that the levels of danger are astronomically different between those 2. Also the advise given on what parents or people who have family wanting to join is a little off. Yeah I mean if my son ever came to me and said I want to be a marine dad an infantry marine, my response will be to turn him another direction immediately, that is no place for any of my children and while I would be proud to see him as a marine I would be terrified to see him on the ground anywhere! I understand that the information used is what was available but that doesnt make it right! Im sure those loggers and fisherman face a dangerous task but just remember that they are facing trees and fish an infantryman is squaring off against other human beings that hate you, and your beliefs and wish u were dead!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 9:44 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    @Timon thank you for your service brother!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:10 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    Also Alex the title of your story. These jobs are "more dangerous" as you like to put it than militady service. I promise you my military service was far more dangerous than cutting down trees or fishing, but again that goes back to my specific job.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:25 AM, RhysMeyers wrote:

    Alright. This stupid marine needs to shut up. God, think before you write, stop reinforcing stereotypes that the military is full of idiots. This worthless author isn't saying that military service is puss compared to logging or fishing or that they "face a greater foe", hes saying based on the NUMBERS, the OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS of having massive logs of wood falling all around you or being the middle of the ocean during a HURRICANE, there are more deaths than military service, any branch. He even says this does not include those who survive with severe injuries. And also like he said, every soldier is not embroiled in combat 24/7, as a matter of fact most haven't seen combat and/or will never see combat. According to these NUMBERS, the need for lumber and the wrath of nature never take a day off and loggers and fishermen decide to fight an INFALLIBLE foe, daily. Stupid damn morons are very good at sounding dumb. Give me your hate.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:32 AM, Bradknowsall wrote:

    Dear Alex Planes, when one is a journalist, one is required to actually do the research for a story, not just assume things are as you want them. I'm a retired Navy jet mech. I've spent too many hours working in the most dangerous working environment on the planet, the deck of an aircraft carrier. I've seen people cut in half by broken arresting cables, seen them sucked into jet intakes, seen them walk into rotating propeller blades and I've seen them blown over the side. I saw one guy blow his foot off because he stepped on a puddle of liquid oxygen he didn't know was there. Here's a thought, why not break the military deaths down by jobs (called Rates in the Navy). I'll tell you what you'll find, x-ray technicians don't die as fast as those RATES that work on the flight deck, or Marine and Army combat MOS'. I would also remind you that these brave men and women protect your right to be an idiot and to disrespect them as you have here. Yes, being a lumberjack or a crab fisherman can be dangerous, but to say that its more dangerous then being in the military is just moronic and belittles those who have to protect your right to be stupid in print. To all my brothers in arms, thank you for your service.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:39 AM, VegasSmitty wrote:

    All this proves is Darwin was right!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:49 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    Lmao wow this is great! ! I see you are enjoying that freedom of speech from behind your keyboard! Im glad to see you enjoying that right! All that ilI was saying is that he has mentioned specifically deep sea fisherman and deep sea loggers but yet every job in the military gets lumped together? ! How does this make sense lets see what those numbers look like if you add all pro fisherman not just the ones that fish in the bearing sea, you know like bass pro fisherman and other pro organizations or take into account all of the people that cut their own wood they are technically loggers as well! I never said that the fisherman face a greater foe or the loggers i just make a joke about the fish being dangeeous and the wood! But if you are going to write an article like this and include specific jobs from those industries why wouldnt you include specific jobs from the military! ? Not the military as a whole! I would bet you any amount of money that u have never served and thats fine but those of us who have in our very real and specific jobs have and some jobs are more dangerois than others! Thats i was saying there idiot, and before you attack me like that again just read and understand what im saying! My specific job is more dangerous than those specific jobs is that clear? ! Please dont fall into the stereotype that all people who dont understand what they read are morons! !

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:53 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    Loggers lol not deep sea loggers! That idiot has me woken up and pissed lol!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 10:59 AM, Bradknowsall wrote:

    RhysMeyers - I think maybe its you who should shut up. marine1234 has the same problem with this article I do. Maybe you don't know this but being military isn't your job when you're in the services. I'm a retired Navy "jet mech". While I never saw combat, I worked on the flight decks of carriers for most of my duty, the most dangerous work environment in the world. Things just jump out at you, a spinning prop is almost invisible and jet intakes can suck you in. If you're not jumping over arresting cables you're ducking jet exhausts or trying to keep the aircraft taking off from the catapult from taking your head off. And while I've never been shot at on a battlefield, I'm pretty sure that a battlefield rates a bit higher on the danger scale than trying to stay out of the way of a falling tree. For this article to be a fair representation of the facts, the author should have included all the death from deep sea sport fishing and inland fishing. When you compare all the fisherman in all the world, then the numbers aren't so spectacular. This author has lumped all military personnel into his calculations and I'll tell you, x-ray technicians always go home, infantrymen not so much. BTW - most commercial fishermen won't head into a hurricane or typhoon on purpose, but Navy task forces do. Its not too bad on a carrier, but destroyers look and act like fishing bobbers. I know you're a troll, but try to show a little respect to those that protect your right to be an idiot.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 11:06 AM, Bradknowsall wrote:

    marine1234 - its too late, he already has. Deep sea logging, that's priceless. I was laughing so hard you beat me to the punch. Thanks for making my morning and for your service!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 11:07 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    @Brad.......my thoughts exactly. Thank you for your service!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 11:27 AM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    @ marine1234 and Bradknowsall -

    I already mentioned in an earlier comment that the data I had available didn't break down death rates by service, or by job description. I would have loved to get granular with this data, but the option wasn't offered to me. I do appreciate that some military jobs are far more dangerous than others, and I tried to point that out towards the end of the article, but I think you're expecting an impossibly specific breakdown of data.

    If you know where I can find year-by-year data by branch or by job, I'd be happy to analyze it. The one thing I could find that detailed deaths by branch only offered one data point per subset of data, which wasn't really specific enough for what I wanted to do. I did include some data points from that analysis, but that was all that I could get from it.

    I'm sorry if this isn't specific enough, but please try to understand that we (writers, journalists, analysts, etc.) rarely have access to the sort of extremely granular information you seem to think we do. This extends to the request for information on sportfishing and the like -- the only death-rate data I have on private industry comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the details that they provided were the details I used here.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 11:31 AM, JohanStrauss wrote:

    Funny how kids nowadays want the easiest job that pays the most money with every perk imaginable and will make them president of the company in a month's time.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 11:47 AM, marine1234 wrote:

    @Alex I see what you are saying and I understand. But obviously as u are able to decipher from what we are saying the idiot who came on here to comment about our comments obviously cannot! my only question is if you saw how the information as you read it wasumping all military jobs into one category and that it wasnt very specific why would you then write the article? And title it "jobs that are more deadly than military service?

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 12:38 PM, Rockyvnvmc wrote:

    I've been in the US Army (although not in actual combat), where I sustained my most serious injury, to date, been in law enforcement and been a, multi trade, construction worker.

    I can honestly report that my work as a Building Tradesman was, overall, far more dangerous, than the other two occupations, albeit, beginning back in the early 1970's when there weren't as stringent OSHA laws, as now. No safety belts, or safety nets, no hard hats, no ear plugs, either, for that matter (Huh? speak up!).

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 1:43 PM, ryanf4f2 wrote:

    Alex, your comparison of the military as a whole, to something as specific as logging, is an apples to oranges type of comparison (as others have pointed out).

    If you don't have access to military death rates by MOS, perhaps a more suitable comparison then would be simply military death rates as compared to civilian death rates. That's more apples to apples.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 2:02 PM, RedondoSC wrote:

    To paraphrase George S. Patton: No S.O.B. ever won a war by dying for his country. He won a war by making the other S.O.B. die for HIS country. And Lt. Dan Taylor: "Try not to do anything stupid, like getting yourself killed". The whole purpose of military training is to keep your soldiers alive and able to kill the enemy. Unlike the mentioned civilian professions, which, if all the reality shows are an example, apparently train newbies by throwing them directly into harms way with minimal instruction on the actual job at hand. These professions appear to view training as older guys missing part or all of various appendages, cursing and goading new recruits into losing theirs. This may have some impact on the statistics.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 3:01 PM, Essayons12 wrote:

    The difference is that you can walk away from being a logger or a fisherman anytime you want with out any severe repercussions. The other is that like many other people have stated, you have to be specific with the jobs within the military. I also see this article as such..... Group A has 100 people and group B has 1,000 people, group A and group B loose 90 people....therefore the percentage of lost people is higher with group A and group A is more dangerous.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 5:47 PM, Alsubsailor wrote:

    Alex - I think the problem with this article has been mentioned but not in a way that drives home the point. You say that the data for the military was only available all lumped together; not separated by MOS/NEC (Navy Enlisted Classification) and whatever the other services use. Yet the data you got for loggers, fisherman, underwater welders, etc. was SPECIFIC to them, and didn't include all of the support personnel that make their jobs possible (like the non-combat troops in the military). If you're going to do a real apples to apples comparison between the military and a logger, you've got to include Ms. Sally in HR who pays the logger, and John in the motor pool who fixes and gasses up the logging trucks, and Mr. Smith in Operations who makes up the schedules of when, where, and how much lumber to harvest. When you take all the support people into account (like you're doing for the military), suddenly those numbers on the logger are going to come down quick, fast, and in a hurry.

    Apples to apples, not apples to oranges mate.

    As for me, my 21 years Navy was spent in the SeaBees (combat engineers), Submarines (most of my time), and Aviation (P-3's and C-130's), and had boots on ground in both Kuwait during the first Gulf War and in Iraq during the second. My most dangerous assignment? Flag Officer support at the Pentagon. I was in serious danger of loosing my mind and soul from having to deal with snot nosed Annapolis/West Point/Air Force academy grads who were their respective General's/Admiral's aids. I'll take a Taliban with an AK over that any day of the week. (wink)

    Brad, marine1234, and any other's who have served: Take it easy mates, and thanks for your service!

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2014, at 11:53 AM, lm1b2 wrote:

    Logging i understand,dangerous,and grossly underpaid,Fisherman is dangerous to,and ironworkers have to be a little crazy to do there work,and i have done hot roofing,very dangerous,but Refuse Collectors,give me a break,other then a bad back what is dangerous about that?

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