All military jobs are potentially dangerous, even working behind a desk at the Pentagon. But there are some military jobs that are more dangerous than most. What follows is a hugely debatable list of the most dangerous jobs in the US military, including a few that may surprise you.Who knows this might even help you decide what career to choose.
10. Combat Engineer
Everyone seems to have a different idea of what a Combat Engineer (also known as a Sapper) actually does. The truth is that it can vary enormously from day to day. The one distinguishing mark of the Combat Engineer (Army: 12B, USMC: 1371) compared to other military engineers is they usually carry a rifle while they are performing their tasks.
Combat engineers construct and de-construct defensive barricades, temporary shelters, bridges, and even latrines sometimes. They may also clear minefields and IEDs (but nowadays more likely to call for an 89D to come and do that), roll out razor wire, and a lot of other things most people would consider to be not a lot of fun.
Why it’s dangerous: You carry a rifle and when the occasion calls for it, you perform exactly the same task as a rifleman, only you have less training and experience in that role. You still complete normal infantry training like AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) training, but you also have more specialized engineering training.
You won’t normally be called on to storm an enemy position or anything like that, but you may have to return fire or lay down cover fire for troops that are advancing.
When you’re doing the engineering side of your job, you’re exposed to danger but relying on others to keep you safe from harm.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, many a 12B is sent along with infantry and cavalry units, tasked specifically with looking for, identifying, and isolating IEDs. Then you call an 89D in, and they get all the glory (if they survive). It’s a fun job classified as "route clearance".
Now I did say you won’t normally storm the enemy, but there are exceptions like if you are called on to be the demo guy for an infantry squad. In that case, you’ll be placing C4 charges on doors to allow entry to buildings (known as "breaching"), and you’ll then act as a rifleman while the building is cleared. You might also use the same skills to destroy assets using C4 or thermite.
9. Carrier Operations
The deck of an aircraft carrier is probably the busiest place you could ever find yourself during flight operations. "Organized chaos" is the best way to describe it. Why it works is because everyone knows their role, and they are very focused on safety. Even so, there have been many thousands of fatalities and injuries since the commencement of carrier operations in the early 20th Century.
Why it’s dangerous: Everywhere you look there is something that can potentially kill you. Rotors, propellers, jet intakes, jet exhausts, moving aircraft, cables... you name it, it can get you!
For fixed-wing aviators, the challenge is obvious. First, take off is not the same as it is from a conventional airfield. Even a conventional takeoff is dangerous, but you at least have some time to cancel the takeoff until you reach decision speed. But when launching from a carrier, you are flung into the sky, and at that point you either fly or you fall.
Then there is the matter of landing. You need to find the ship, which is not always easy, then you need to line up, get your speed exactly right, and perform a controlled crash onto a moving target, hoping to catch one of the arrestor cables with your tailhook. This is nowhere near as easy as I just made it sound.
You also have to do all that day and night, fair weather and foul. Your safety depends on your skill, and the professionalism of the other team members. All of that before we even consider the obvious dangers involved in flying into combat, if that is what your job involves.
For those on the deck, who have various aircraft handling duties, there are all kinds of other dangers present. These include the aircraft that are being moved around on the deck, dangers posed by munitions and aviation fuel, aircraft that crash land (this can cause very intense fires and shrapnel blast), being attacked by the enemy, and even the normal dangers of sea-going duties such as falling overboard.
Everyone has to be very vigilant, safety-conscious, and professional. Fortunately most of the time they are, and so even though it is a dangerous environment, accidents are more rare than you might expect.
8. SEAD Pilot (aka Wild Weasel)
This is typically an Air Force job performed by F16 pilots (AFSC 11F3H), though Weasel missions are also flown by USN and USMC pilots in other aircraft (usually Prowlers, Growlers, or Hornets).
The term SEAD stands for "Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses", and as the name implies, you are trying to make the sky safer by reducing ground-based anti-air threats.
Why it’s dangerous: Most combat pilots try to avoid being shot at. As a Wild Weasel, you do the opposite, trying to goad the enemy into shooting at you (which is surprisingly easy!).
By doing this, the enemy gives away their position. So basically you are flushing out the enemy air defenses, informing friendly units of their location, and then retaliating.
It is even more dangerous than flying as an ordinary recon pilot because you don’t fly at high altitudes. You get down low, trying to out-run and out-gun the enemy. Needless to say, these pilots need to be the best of the best.
7. Cavalry Scout
This is a US Army job (MOS 19D) which has changed considerably from when the label was first used.
Why it’s dangerous: Your job as a cavalry scout is to go behind enemy lines and find hostile units, then relay their position to friendly units.
You are separated from friendly forces, cut off from supply lines, and constantly at risk of being discovered and attacked without the benefit of support and reinforcement (at least in the early stages of an engagement).
It is a lonely, dangerous, and difficult job, but somebody has to do it. While it is becoming increasingly more common for UAVs to be deployed for recon, they can’t completely replace the need for 19D units.
6. US Army Ranger
"Rangers lead the way," so the saying goes, and in most respects this is absolutely true. While a cavalry scout or special forces soldier might be the first to observe an enemy position in a regular warfare environment, Rangers are highly likely to be the first sent to engage the enemy in a firefight.
As a SPECOPS force, Rangers have to be extremely tough and highly competent fighters, but unlike the SPECFOR teams, they do not have to concern themselves too much with PsyOps, public relations, or diplomacy.
So where Special Forces are training for highly specialized missions requiring a whole range of extra-military skills, Rangers are training for missions that involve more direct action.
Normally, of course, the enemy will probably be "softened up" a little with indirect fire (artillery, mortars, etc.) or air strikes, but after that it’s going to be primarily a gun fight. And just like the gunfights of the Old West, whoever is fastest and most accurate is likely to still be standing when the shooting stops.
Why it’s dangerous: Even though you are an elite warrior with plenty of training and a high level of fitness, you’re still doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army (rifleman). But your job is made even more dangerous by the fact that you are expected to go ahead and "lead the way" so that other infantry can move the line forward (on the map in the MCC).
Rangers are tough because they need to be.
5. Tanker Pilot / Air Crew
In this job, you provide Texaco service for friendly aircraft to allow them to stay airborne for as long as possible.
Why it’s dangerous: Although you are usually separated from enemy aircraft by several layers of friendly aircraft, it’s still possible to be targeted if any enemy manage to slip through. You are flying a huge, slow plane, the entirety of which can become a massive bomb in an instant. This is because it is filled with the most highly combustible fuel known to man.
Even without the threat of enemy fire, your job is still dangerous because air-to-air refueling is so technical and difficult to perform. Consequently many things can go wrong, and a mistake by you or the accepting pilot can be fatal.
Air-to-air refueling is a special kind of formation flight where timing is everything. Even if you don’t die from an accident or enemy fire, there’s still the chance of dying from boredom, since tankers fly circular routes (which can be done by autopilot), only breaking the monotony when performing a hook-up, and that’s not the tanker pilot’s job.
4. Rescue Swimmer
This is another high-risk occupation that you have to volunteer for (nobody can order you to be a rescue swimmer). It’s one of the few dangerous jobs that is found in all branches, including the Coast Guard, where the job is renamed as "Aviation Survival Technician."
Why it’s dangerous: Rescue swimmers are subjected to really tough, physical qualification tests because they need to be able to work in really harsh conditions. Rescues are carried out in all weather, and you can be sure that the more adverse the conditions are, the more likely it is that your skills will be called upon.
While actually making a rescue, you could be in danger of attack from enemy units, the person you’re trying to rescue, sea animals such as sharks, or you could just fall victim to Mother Nature herself in the form of a rogue wave or anything else she can dream up.
All that while being subjected to the inherent dangers of rotary wing aviation, swimming, and military life.
3. EOD Technician
Here’s a job where you don’t normally directly come into contact with the enemy, but it’s still more dangerous than bathing naked with a piranha.
It’s a job dangerous enough that the Navy will pay you a huge cash bonus if you enlist and volunteer for EOD training under the EOD Challenge program (though you have to wait until your pay grade hits E2 before you can commence that training... it’s all in the details, so remember to thoroughly grill your recruiter). Even better, while you have to be E2 to qualify, you will automatically receive a promotion to E4 after you complete all the required training.
It’s also the only combat support role that is equally dangerous regardless of which branch of service you join. Finally, it is also the only MOS you can automatically quit from at any time without needing prior authorization (though you will be transferred to another MOS, most likely 11B if you’re Army).
The best part about EOD is that it is voluntary and you know that what you are doing is saving lives. Where many combat-related jobs are mainly focused on killing, your job is focused on the opposite, and that’s kind of cool.
Why it’s dangerous: EOD Technicians (Army: 89D, USMC: 2336, USN: EOD 5333, USAF: 3E8X1) are responsible for the disposal of explosive ordinance. In simple terms, this usually means blowing it up, removing it, or disarming it (though in many cases, disarming an IED is forbidden). The obvious problem is that explosives can explode, sometimes unexpectedly, and you can die.
You may think this is an easy job, but it’s nothing like what you see in the movies. In reality, it makes no difference if you cut the red wire or the blue wire, and EOD techs do not automatically know which wire to cut just by looking.
The military pays EOD techs handsomely, but you need to be really careful because it’s also a job that can literally cost you an arm and a leg.
Robots help to make the job much more safe, but there still may be times when you have to get up close and personal with a device that has only one purpose - to kill you.
2. Infantry Rifleman
In terms of pure numbers, the infantry rifleman (Army: 11B, Marines: 0311) has always had the highest number of casualties, simply because there are more of them than any other occupation.
Until recently, it also had the highest percentages, which indicates that it is not purely a matter of numbers (in the Vietnam War, approximately 53% of all USMC casualties were MOS (Military Occupational Speciality Code) 0311, with the next highest being 0351 [Assaultman] at just under 8%).
During the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, due to the change in conflict type and enemy strategy, that dubious honor for the MOS with the most casualties has shifted to 88M (Army) and 3531 (USMC), but I’ll tell you about that job in a moment.
Why it’s dangerous: The whole point of your job is to get into direct firefights with the enemy, without any physical protection except for some body armour and a helmet.
The whole time you are in combat, you are exposed to risk from all kinds of direct and indirect fire, but in addition to this, you may at times be pushed to the very limits of your endurance. Unlike the elite infantry units, you will not usually receive the training to allow you to mentally and physically cope with extreme conditions.
The enemy isn’t the only danger that riflemen and other combat troops face either. Suicide rates among infantry soldiers have been increasing in recent years, and remain higher than average.
1. Truck Driver
Technically a "Motor Vehicle Operator" (Army MOS 88M, USMC MOS 3531), is the most dangerous (based on the number of deaths) Combat Support role in the Army and the Marines, at least since troops have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Why it’s dangerous: This is partly due to the strategy of hostile forces using roadside IEDs (and in past times also land mines), plus the fact that even since the time of Sun Tsu every military leader has known that cutting an army’s supply line is usually the key to victory.
Motor Transport Operators carry soldiers into war zones and around them. They transport supplies, which not only includes food, but also ammunition, explosives, and combustible fuel.
There is a reason why the infantry call this job "88 Mistake" and "IED Magnet." Seriously, they love you guys (except when you’re late), but part of that love is because you are taking a little heat off them, since by being at the front of the vehicle you are getting hit by the IED instead of the 11Bs in the back.
The above list is long but hardly exhaustive. There are many other occupations that carry very high risk such as combat medics and CBRN specialists, but as I said at the start, all military jobs have some risk (even French Horn players, who, according to the USMC, have an unexpectedly high suicide rate).
If you can add anything to the information presented here, or want to nominate any other jobs as especially dangerous, feel free to leave a comment.
This article was first published in October 2015.