Flashpoints

Now the Pentagon refuses to say whether U.S. troops have been hurt fighting ISIS

The Pentagon is refusing to disclose when U.S. troops are wounded by Islamic State forces in Syria, suggesting that doing so could "provide information to the enemy that might be helpful."

Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook has repeatedly balked at questions about reports that four American troops were injured there on June 9. He did so again Tuesday, citing a policy to not acknowledge such incidents.

It's an apparent reversal from only three weeks prior, when military officials publicized that two Americans had be injured as a result of by ISIS activity — one in Syria, the other in Iraq.

News of the June 9 incident was first reported by CNN. Citing anonymous Pentagon sources, the networked reported that four U.S. troops were injured by an anti-tank round that exploded a vehicle near their position. CNN reported at the time that the four unidentified personnel suffered light shrapnel wounds and may have returned to duty.

"We provide information with regard, of course, to casualties," Cook said Tuesday. "But for a variety of reasons, we do not provide information on wounded service members, and we're going to continue to stick to that, again, because we don't want to provide information to the enemy that might be helpful."

Every week, the Pentagon releases aggregate data about military casualties sustained in connection with U.S. operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. According to the most recent report, dated June 21, 16 American service members have been injured while supporting efforts against ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. It says only that one sailor was wounded in May and one soldier has been hurt by hostile action so far in June.

But on May 31, another Defense Department spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, told reporters that two service members had been injured in the ISIS campaign, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Davis, the Pentagon's director of press operations, said the two troops' injuries were the result of indirect fire.

"They were not on the front lines," Davis said at the time, "they were not engaged in active combat."

The lack of a clear policy regarding such disclosures may reflect the prominent role that special operations troops are playing in the ISIS fight. Hundreds of them are deployed to Iraq, and all 300 U.S. troops in Syria are believed to be from the special operations community.

While the Pentagon has historically been forthcoming about incidents of wounded service members in traditional military operations, officials typically follow a more conservative policy for special operations troops, who often are involved in missions that are entirely classified.

These questions over what is considered a combat casualty come as President Obama steps up U.S. involvement in both countries. In April, he authorized an additional 217 troops for Iraq, putting the total American force there at more than 4,000. Obama also approved an additional 250 special operations troops to deploy to Syria, bringing the total U.S. force there to about 300.

Cook said Tuesday that the Defense Department has a longstanding policy to withhold wounded troops' names.

According to Pentagon data, there have been three combat-related deaths since the start of Inherent Resolve in April 2014, including two in 2016, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, killed in a rocket attack in Iraq, and Special Warfare Operator 1st Class (SEAL) Charles Keating IV, who died in a firefight with ISIS forces in Tel Askuf, Iraq.

Keating was part of a unit attempting to extract U.S. combat advisers who had come under attack with Kurdish troops.

Military Times Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

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