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Deadliest Jobs in Military History

Written by Robbie Hadley

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Introduction

            Everyone has a price. Just as goods have values that fluctuate with supply and demand, the exact same is true for services and labor. The less desirable a job is, the more money it is likely to pay. For example, the average American Garbage man makes around $41,000 a year, not including benefits. However, if that job requires you to risk life and limb, that salary can go up quickly. US Firemen make a median $51,000 a year working two to three twenty four hour shifts a week. Some experienced coal miners make over $125,000 a year, and saturation divers make $1,400 every single day of their dive. If you are willing to put yourself at risk and develop the skills, you can be handsomely compensated for work.

            However, having a risky job is far from a guarantee that you will become fabulously wealthy. In fact, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world pays a strikingly average salary. That is a career in the military. Across the globe, millions of soldiers from nearly every country in the world put themselves in harm’s way to protect the interests and people of their country.  That being said, not all military jobs are made equal. Although we will not attempt to say that any job is more honorable than any other, there are some that are unquestionably more dangerous. Today, we take a look into the most dangerous jobs in military history. From walking bombs to the blunt force weapons of nations, soldiers have dedicated, and sometimes given, their lives to protect what they hold dear.

Mobile Radio Operator

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            During WWII, advances in technology changed nearly every aspect of how we wage war. From the ship and plane detecting RADAR equipment and heavy duty aircraft carriers to penicillin, many different technologies shaped the battlefields. Few of these technologies had as much impact as the radio. Although the first ever radio signal had been sent in 1906 with the technology reaching mass adoption by the 1920’s, this new technology had a far reaching impact beyond the world of entertainment. By WWII, radio was seen as an essential way to communicate quickly to all troops spread across the globe. For America, the US Army Signal Corps was in charge of making sure messages were sent and received anywhere they needed to go. While some of these operators were stationed at military command far away from the fighting, others were on the front lines making sure the troops had all of the most up to date information that they needed to carry out their mission.

            On top of all of the other gear a soldier needs out on the front, these members of the Signal Corps had to lug around a mobile radio. It is easy to forget in an age where the devices in our pockets are more powerful than the computers that landed men on the moon that communication devices have not always been miniaturized. Although a business executive’s cell phone from the 1980’s might be a behemoth compared to our modern devices, it is dwarfed by the SCR-300, also known as the Walkie Talkie. Made by Motorola, this thirty five pound machine was strapped to the soldier’s back and allowed the commanding officer to quickly communicate with other units and military command. This sort of instant communication was invaluable in many different theaters of the war, but was particularly helpful during the chaotic and deadly hours of the D-Day invasion. Operation Overlord saw over one hundred and fifty thousand troops from the US, UK, and Canada storm the beaches of Normandy as the first step to recapture continental Europe from the Nazis. With so many troops on the field, instant communication was crucial to the allied victory.

            This is also why the job was so dangerous. The Walkie Talkie was not exactly a subtle device. With a large antenna protruding from the top of it and looking significantly different than the backpacks of other soldiers with its rectangular frame, anyone lugging it around was going to attract some attention. As soon as they were spotted by enemy combatants, you can be sure they were near the top of the list of priority targets. Enemy soldiers knew all too well the effect that consistent and reliable communication can have on a battle. If the radio technician was killed, then that line of communication was cut.

            Although advances in technology allowed the components to be smaller by the outset of the Vietnam War, there was a new set of dangers for these soldiers to contend with. In the jungles of Vietnam, there was rarely a well defined front line. The Vietcong forces used Guerilla warfare to slowly break down the American forces and made victories harder to come by. One of the key tactics of Guerilla warfare is ambushing the enemy. In that situation, the radio operator was one of the first targets so that the startled troops wouldn’t be able to call in reinforcements or even report troop locations.

            Today, advances in miniaturized computerization have minimized this risk. Although mobile radio operators might still be high value targets in a conflict, the smaller equipment makes them much less conspicuous and thankfully, much safer.

Pararescue

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            In the military, few mantras are quite as oft repeated as “I will leave no one behind on the battlefield.” In the fog of war, this can be a difficult promise to keep. However, the Air Force Special Operations Command’s pararescuemen, known colloquially as the PJs, have the difficult job of airlifting those in need from practically any situation. Their goals are usually simple. Extract the target and get them to safety. However, that is much easier said than done. Tending to the wounded is a difficult task in any circumstance, but the pararescuemen have to be ready to get injured comrades out of any situation and back to their families nomatter what obstacles or resistance may impede their goal.

            Specializing in everything from search and rescue to emergency medical procedures, the pararescuemen are among the most highly trained soldiers in all of the armed forces. Training with the U.S. Army Airborne for parachuting skills, with the Navy to become Combat Divers, and a twenty two week paramedic course, the pararescuemen need to be sure they are ready for any environment soldiers might find themselves in.

            As an example of heights of valor a pararescueman has achieved, take the life and career of Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney. In his less than four years serving in Vietnam, he flew over two hundred missions, all of which he volunteered for. He was shot in the leg on his very first mission and instead of going to a medic, he had his friend pull the bullet out so he wouldn’t have to waste any time on a recovery and could go right back out on another mission.

            On February 6th, 1967, Hackney would face the toughest test of his life. After failing to find a downed pilot near the Mu Gia pass in a multi hour search, he and his team quickly rushed back out after the pilot reestablished communication. The lone pilot was located and pulled into the helicopter for extraction back to base, but an explosion rattled the aircraft. The helicopter had been hit by an artillery shell and was moments from destruction. Putting his own parachute on the wounded pilot and getting him out of the helicopter, he grabbed the secondary chute. He didn’t even have time to put it on when the helicopter exploded. Sgt. Hackney plummeted over eighty feet onto a rocky ledge.

            Despite suffering many injuries, he managed to make it back safely, avoiding capture. Tragically, he was the only member of the mission to survive with his four crew members and the pilot being lost in the disaster.

            Sgt. Hackney is the most decorated airman in history with an Air Force Cross, Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, eighteen Air Medals, and numerous other honors.

            The motto of the Pararescue is “That Others May Live” and Sgt. Hackney, as well as the thousands of other honorable veterans who have served in this role, as well as similar roles in armed forces across the globe, constantly put the lives of others before their own.

Flamethrower Trooper

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            Flamethrower Troopers take our most base instincts and turn them into frightfully effective tools of war. Even the earliest humans knew that fire was both a tool and a weapon. On an already chaotic battlefield, a torrent of flame can send a soldier running. If they brave the onslaught, they risk being enveloped by the smoldering inferno.

Although the technology has evolved over the decades, the basic setup is the same. A flamethrower is divided into two main parts. Mounted on the back of the trooper are the fuel tanks which store several components that combine in a deadly conflagration. The first of these is a flammable substance, usually petroleum based, combined with some sort of thickener to keep the flames concentrated. The most infamous of these is napalm which was used heavily in the Vietnam war, both in flamethrowers and dropped from planes. The second tank has a pressurized substance such as nitrogen as a propellant. This is needed to push the flammable liquid out and onto the target.

The second half of a flamethrower is the gun. Attached to the tank with a hose, this ignites the liquid and helps direct the flame to whatever the trooper plans to incinerate.

 In WWI, heavily armored troops would fight across the no man’s land and into the enemy trenches. While there, a flamethrower trooper could clear the entire area in a few minutes. The tactics were much the same in WWII, although heavy armor was replaced with an accompanying squad of support troops. Flame troopers would be deployed in bunkers and other tight quarters to discourage resistance from enemy soldiers.

With all of this equipment, armor, and support what made the job so dangerous? With tanks of petroleum and propellant strapped to their back, one stray bullet could cause the entire apparatus to explode. Being the first man in the trench or bunker is a compromising position for any soldier. The flamethrower troopers dropped into that danger while carrying around what is essentially a large bomb. Also, like the mobile radio operators, they are not exactly subtle. All eyes would turn towards them as soon as they let loose their inferno and they would become a top priority target. All of this adds up to a soldier with the most volatile weapon entering the most dangerous situations and as the most obvious target and a single stray bullet can send him up in flames.

In the modern day, you are very unlikely to see any soldier wielding a flamethrower. Other anti personnel weapons and deterrents such as flash bangs, smoke grenades, and even sonic weapons are more effective of clearing a room without the danger of having a bomb strapped to their back or running the risk of starting a fire that can spread far beyond its intended target. I’m sure the soldiers of today aren’t lamenting the decline of this treacherous job.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician

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Improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs, injured or killed over three hundred and fifty thousand civilians in the last decade. In Afghanistan alone, over five thousand troop casualties are attributed to them. IEDs and Unexploded Ordinance are among the most deadly of the perils that both troops and civilians have to contend with. What happens when a soldier in Iraq finds an IED or a little boy in Vietnam discovers an active landmine? They call in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians. Unlike you may have seen in the movies, just snipping the red wire isn’t a guarantee that an explosive device is no longer a threat. Their job is to make sure these potentially disastrous weapons are rendered inert. 

Unlike many of the other jobs on this list, you can find these professionals in nearly every standing military in the world. Also, there are many civilian police forces that also train for the same purpose. Although America’s conflict in Vietnam ended half a century ago, any explosive devices that are still left in the ground still have enormous potential to do harm. Over forty thousand civilians have been killed by them in the ensuing decades. You can find military, police, and civilian units alike trained to deal with these instruments of death and make their country just a bit safer.

However, the country worst affected by this tragedy is Cambodia. The twentieth century was full of bloodshed and war for the people of Cambodia. Moving from French colonial rule, to Japanese occupation in WWII, then getting caught up in the war with their neighbor, Vietnam, the decades were harsh for the country, but unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The sadistic dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge only ruled the country’s government for four years from 1975 to 1979, but in that time they killed two million of their own people. Between the decades of war, a brutal regime, and the ensuing civil war, tens of millions of landmines were put in the ground across large swaths of the country and along its borders. Because of this, there are many areas of the country that are so littered with unexploded landmines, that all but trained personnel are completely barred from entry. It is believed that there could still be up to ten million active landmines still underground waiting for an innocent victim to deliver its payload.

While not exactly a military organization, the Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC) is a government affiliated organization that works to remove ordinance. Nomatter if it is a landmine near a school or underwater ordinances near a shipwreck, the valiant people of the CMAC work hard to disarm them and make the area safe. As you might imagine, working with explosives is treacherous at the best of times. When these devices have been exposed to half a century of decay, many of them are primed to blow at the slightest inclination. While they have already cleared countless devices, it will be a long time before it is safe to wander through the country off the beaten path.

For the American military, the United States Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) is the preeminent force to render dangerous ordinance as safe. They are trained to dispose of everything from the aforementioned IEDs and landmines to chemical and even nuclear weapons. With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were called on countless times to make sure that these instruments of death did not complete their intended task of mayhem. They often work in conjunction with other military and civilian forces such as the secret service, FBI, or local police forces when particularly dangerous situations arise.

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One paramilitary force that probably should have enlisted the EOD’s help and advice is the Los Angeles Police Department Bomb Squad. Despite being one of the largest and best funded police forces in the country, they demonstrated just how dangerous these devices can be even when they are not designed with warfare in mind. In July 2021, LAPD raided an illicit fireworks distributor. On the property, they found copious amounts of homemade explosives. Although these were not designed to hurt anyone, it doesn’t mean that the huge explosive power wasn’t dangerous. Not wanting to transport large amounts of explosive material on the freeway during rush hour, they made the decision to explode the ordinance there using their vehicle with a containment unit designed specifically for this purpose. They cleared a three hundred foot radius zone from the truck and informed neighbors of the impending explosion. As soon as it went off, they realized something was catastrophically  wrong. The containment unit was gone, as was much of the truck. Windows shattered across the block and beyond and car alarms went off in every direction. At least seventeen people suffered injuries from the blast. The five hundred pound containment lid was found three blocks down the road. The LAPD had drastically underestimated the amount of ordinance they were exploding and caused the entire device to fail.

This is what happened when trained professionals attempted to disarm fireworks that had no purpose other than some entertaining explosions. Now substitute that with a device made by a maniac hoping to do harm to as many people as possible. That is what the EOD seeks constantly to eliminate. These men and women along with thousands of others in militaries across the globe have saved countless lives and will continue to do so despite those who might try to cause mayhem and destruction.

Infantry

US Army (USA) Soldiers from Alpha Company (A CO), 2nd Battalion (BN), 12th Infantry Regiment (2-12 INF), perform combat life support on a crew member of an immobilized tank attacked by Anti-Iraqi Forces while on patrol in the An Najaf cemetery, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
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            Although these roles are all incredibly dangerous, if you calculate the most dangerous jobs by the number of casualties alone, no other group would be near the Infantry. From the ancient battlefields of Greece and Rome, to the medieval crusades, the Somme, and the Ukrainian countryside, the Infantry has been a part of nearly every battle across all of human history. In fact, nearly all military units in ancient times were considered infantry until technology advanced to allow chariot riders and horse mounted cavalry. Even then, they would have been just a small part of a much larger force that was still predominantly infantry based.

            At its most basic, infantry just means foot soldiers. The infantry is the first line of  defense or the point of the spear in nearly every conflict. They are the blunt force weapon thrown against an enemy line until it crumbles and breaks. Tactics, weaponry, and technology has changed infantry troops over the last several millennia of which they participated in combat, but their role has been the same. They are an overwhelming force of war used to take targets by brute force and often with tragic casualty rates.

The most famous infantry in antiquity is likely the feared Spartan warrior. Highly trained and heavily armored, they were the special forces of the ancient world, but only fought on foot. Although the Battle of Thermopylae is unquestionably the most famous of their exploits, it is very exemplary of their dedication and vigor that all of their soldiers were expected to demonstrate at all times. It’s also exemplary of the danger they faced as all of the Spartan soldiers in that conflict perished. Although the idea that they wished to die in battle is a popular myth, they in fact thought fighting to live was more noble than wanting to die, they would much rather face death than suffer defeat. Death in battle was a valorous end as long as the soldiers were fighting for their lives and not as a suicide mission. The saying of mothers to their soldiers was to come home bearing their shields, or having their bodies carried on them. If a soldier came home alive after a lost battle, they would be the subject of shame and ridicule.

            By the first century CE, the Roman Legionnaires were the height of infantry prowess. However, this also was fraught with danger. The Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage between 256 and 145 BCE saw over one and a half million deaths and countless more casualties. Nearly all of the military casualties were in the infantry.

            Two millennia of progress saw infantry units move from heavily armored units with swords and shields to modern soldiers wielding firearms. However, it did not become less deadly. WWI saw entire divisions of infantry nearly wiped out in charges across no man’s land. WWII didn’t fare much better. Of the one point one million American casualties of WII, six hundred thousand of them were in the infantry. If those numbers were consistent across the allied powers, it could mean that over ten million Soviet infantry soldiers were killed or wounded in the conflict. Although exact numbers are extremely spotty, you can be sure that wherever the front line was, the Infantry wasn’t far away.

            Even science fiction acknowledges how dangerous infantry roles can be. The classic 1959 novel Starship Troopers and the 1997 film adaptation of the same name follow an infantry unit in their fight against an insectoid foe seeking to destroy earth.  The film adaptation shows that essentially no soldier in the infantry who sees combat leaves without wounds. It then uses this fact as a pointed satire of war and the supposed expendability of troops. While running into battle, the commander yells “Come on you apes, do you want to live forever?” as if the soldiers should want to die in battle and that expecting any less is unreasonable. However, this satirical line was stolen from the real life quote of American Marine Sgt. Daniel Daly. Popular legend states that he yelled “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” as his soldiers ran into combat during the Battle of Belleau Wood of WWI. The veracity of the story is very much suspect, but the picture of a commander sending his men into a near inevitable death is the sad reality that countless infantry units have faced through history.

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