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In one way or another, all military jobs are (or have the potential to be) dangerous. It’s an undeniable truth, though, that some are inevitably more dangerous than others — especially those where exposure to hostile or hazardous working environments is increased.
To put a marker on some of these roles, we’ve compiled a highly debatable list of what constitutes the most dangerous jobs in the military, including one or two that may possibly surprise you.
Who knows? It might even help you decide which career to choose.
So, in no particular order, here are 15 of the most dangerous military jobs.
Primarily the reserve of infantry units (although additional branches or cap badges, such as the artillery, engineers and cavalry, can also fulfill this role), riflemen act as the literal boots on the ground of any military operation.
While riflemen often receive support from tanks and aircraft, they ultimately have to rely on their own skills and training to complete their missions. They know that every time they go into battle, they are putting their lives on the line, and yet they do it willingly, because they believe in what they are fighting for.
We spoke to a former member of the British Army’s 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment, who said, “As an infantryman and mortar fire controller, I was charged with bringing mortar and artillery onto the frontline should the need arise. Luckily, I wasn’t deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, where the situation was highly dangerous.”
Away from the battlefield, infantrymen and women (females have been permitted to apply for recently closed combat infantry roles in recent years) are also not averse to potential danger. There are numerous documented cases of fatal training accidents (particularly where live ammunition is being used), while the suicide rates of former riflemen, in particular, are notably high.
2. Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert
When your job entails dealing with highly volatile and often crudely manufactured explosive devices, then it’s not difficult to see why EOD experts are on this list.
Every service has its own variant of EOD technicians, but each is subject to the same level of danger. Aside from the incendiary devices that they have to disarm, recover or destroy, they are also exposed to the same small-arms and IED threats as everybody else. As Chris Hunter outlines in his seminal account of life as an ATO in Iraq in Eight Lives Down, bomb disposal experts are also specifically targeted by bomb-makers who study their methods and strategies and look for potential weaknesses.
Due to the incredibly high — and unsurprising — levels of stress involved in the job, many EOD technicians suffer from burnout or, unfortunately, their luck eventually runs out.
In recent years, there have been a number of accidents that have resulted in injuries and deaths. In some cases, these accidents have been caused by human error. In other cases, they have been caused by faulty equipment or incorrect information. Either way, accidents are a very real danger that EOD personnel face on a daily basis.
Whatever way you look at it, jobs don’t come more intense.
3. Forward observer
Known by various titles depending on their branch and service, forward observers (or “pathfinders”) are tasked — as their title suggests — with going into hostile territory and identifying targets, locations and intelligence for use in operations.
In addition, pathfinders often have to work in difficult and dangerous terrain, such as mountains or dense forests. Despite the dangers they face, pathfinders play an essential role in military operations. Without their skills and knowledge, soldiers would be blind to the enemy's movements and would be at a significant disadvantage in battle.
Not only do the forward observers have a lack of combat support, but there are also no supply lines, and things can go very wrong very quickly if caught. Forward observers are, therefore, highly trained and independent, and subject to a notorious selection process, with only a select few being deemed qualified for the task.
4. Cavalry scout/reconnaissance
In a similar vein to forward observers, cavalry scouts and recon units tread unchartered ground when it comes to conflict zones. They are usually at the tip of any advance and, therefore, meet the brunt of whatever resistance is lying in wait for them.
Aside from the obvious immediate danger that this role presents, recon units often spend extended amounts of time at the sharp end without any relief. For example, the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps — immortalized in Evan Wright’s Generation Kill — spent three months as the spearhead unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This constant need to be on high alert can lead to all kinds of issues, requiring recon soldiers to demonstrate extreme physical and mental endurance.
Ellen Ramsey, who’s partner is a member of the patrols platoon and parachute regiment in the British Army, says, “They’re the first in behind enemy lines and act as the eyes and ears on the ground. It’s difficult to handle, as you’re always worried and waiting for them to contact you to let you know they’re okay.”
5. Combat medic/corpsman
In combat, some jobs are dangerous based on the value attached to them by the enemy; combat medics, who patrol alongside riflemen, definitely fall into this category.
It’s dangerous enough to expose yourself to small-arms fire and IEDs when rushing to treat a wounded colleague, but when you’ve got a target on your back — attached by enemy fighters who understand the psychological effects of taking out the only immediate means of life-saving treatment — then things get a whole lot scarier.
Despite being protected as non-combatants under the Geneva Convention, medics have been targeted by enemy soldiers for this reason since World War Two, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the army.
It’s a long-established truth of war that an army is only as capable as the supply lines which feed it; therefore, vehicle convoys are an attractive and relatively easy target for enemy fighters. Drivers — referred to in the US military as 88 Mikes (or, rather more drily, as 88 “mistakes”) — often bear the brunt of deadly roadside IEDs.
Drivers, of course, are also responsible for navigating armored personnel vehicles (APCs) on patrol; this can be a tricky job at the best of times, but even more so when things go wrong, and a swift exit is required.
Most services have a variant of the “aviation survival technician”, although the UK has no recognized equivalent of the US’s acclaimed Air Force Pararescue branch. They are tasked with the recovery, rescue and initial medical treatment of personnel in both combat and humanitarian missions.
The danger aspect of the job is multiple. On particularly difficult missions, such as locating and rescuing downed personnel from the sea or attending “hot” conflict zones where the risk of getting shot down is huge, any number of things can go wrong. Whether it’s a well-placed RPG hit, the unpredictability of mother nature or any of the risks associated with rotary aviation, winchmen and pararescue operatives are subject to a whole cocktail of potentially dangerous ingredients.
8. Combat engineer
In the military world, combat engineers can sometimes be akin to jacks-of-all-trades. Alongside their construction and engineering roles, they are also the go-to experts on munitions, mines and demolitions, as well as having to fulfill all the other traditional duties of soldiering.
Naturally, this can lead to potentially dangerous situations. Engineers are often tasked to build or fix installations in isolated or vulnerable areas, and while they are meant to be protected, this isn’t always the case. Take into account the normal everyday hazards of construction sites and, of course, the dangers associated with playing with explosives, and you start to see why combat engineering isn’t all fun and games.
In any walk of life, being a pilot is potentially dangerous, but when enemy combatants are actively doing everything they can to bring down your aircraft, then the danger levels jump up a notch.
To make things even worse, military aircraft can be notoriously difficult to fly. The Eurofighter Typhoon, for instance, has a top speed of 2,495km/h, while the Apache helicopter — according to former pilot Ed Macy in his book Apache — requires its pilots’ eyes to work independently of each other.
When dealing with such complex machinery, it’s safe to say that the potential for things to go awry is obvious, meaning that the military only recruits the very best flight cadets.
Jessica Brown, a former RAF flight operations manager said: “Troop-carrying helicopter pilots have one of the most dangerous flying roles in the military, as their operations are often conducted at low level, so they are more likely to collide with birds, drones and fly in the line of fire for small arms. Unlike jets, they routinely operate in unprepared sites, often touching down in dangerous and challenging environments.”
Being a pilot is dangerous in any situation, but in combat, even more so.
10. Special forces soldier
Although the term “special forces” encompasses a wide array of specialist units, soldiers in units, such as the SAS, Navy SEALs and SBS, operate on a completely different level to the rest of the military.
Most of the time, their presence in certain locations is not publicly available information, with the majority of their missions designed to be high-stakes and low-collateral. Naturally, when working in such limited numbers and with such little support, “operators” (as they are often referred to) can find themselves in extremely dangerous situations.
Special forces soldiers possess an amalgam of many of the skills on this list and, therefore, only the most rounded and determined candidates pass the various rigorous selection courses. The selection process for the SAS, for instance, is dangerous in itself, with several candidates having died attempting it.
11. Artillery observer
Artillery observers are responsible for directing long-distance artillery and mortar fire onto a target. While they’re not usually in the line-of-sight of targets, they’re still in a precarious position if there’s any return fire from enemies — who also have artillery observers doing the exact same thing!
They use radios to communicate directions/coordinates of the target, so that those firing on the enemy know where to aim. A small adjustment here and there could mean life or death, and they’re considered a high-priority target by enemy forces, making this role one of the most dangerous military jobs.
Army divers are responsible for reconnaissance, demolition and salvaging tasks underwater. You may think, why is that so dangerous? Well, it’s because their information provides commanders on the battlefield with maneuver support, search and recovery, and security, all while being up to 50 meters under the water in sometimes treacherous conditions.
They’re soldiers, first and foremost, but they are used regularly to recover missing equipment that’s crucial to the troops. Major Mick Stewart said, “In Afghanistan, in the middle of a working day, we were on 4 hours’ notice to move to cover diving operations across Helmand. I had to pull drivers off task, who’d just finished a long patrol, and pull engineers off a site, and within 40 mins have them in a Chinook, and land beside the river Helmand to do an underwater search for some missing critical equipment.”
It's the kind of role where no two days are the same, it seems!
We’ve already covered the pararescue team, but there’s another airborne branch of the military that has a dangerous job to do. Paratroopers are the elite airborne infantry that jump out of airplanes into enemy territory to conduct a variety of missions, including prevention and pre-emption tasks as well as fighting in combat on the ground.
The British parachute regiment was formed by Churchill during World War Two and, since then, they have fought in nearly all wars Britain has been involved in, while the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division can deploy to the front with just 18 hours’ notice.
14. Aerospace systems operator
An aerospace systems operator is responsible for managing sophisticated sensors, communications, and computer information systems that search the skies for threats to security. They also help by controlling offensive, defensive and combat support aircraft that intercept and destroy enemy targets.
Former RAF aerospace systems operator, Richard West, who now runs Propeller Team Training, said he often worked in remote mountain sites, like the Falkland Islands. The easiest way to get people and equipment up and down was by helicopters carrying shipping containers. They regularly had to get in close proximity to the chinook helicopter blades, which “generate a huge amount of static electricity whilst in the air and could quite easily turn you into a particularly crispy airman if you were not careful.”
He went on to say, “Managing not to get blown off the top of a 3-meter shipping container had its challenges but dealing with the debris being blasted about at the same time was another issue.”
Want to know what this debris was? Sheep feces (gross). He said, “When I first joined, I had no idea of the sorts of dangers we’d face.”
15. Tank crew
Tank crew, although protected by the thick metal walls of the tank, are regularly in dangerous positions. They’re constantly avoiding buried IED bombs and dealing with attacks by insurgents, although these rarely cause much damage to a machine of this size. Due to the tanks’ size and the damage they can cause, they’re a high-priority target for the enemy.
The dangers don’t just lay on the outside of the tank, though. The interior of the tank can reach high temperatures.
While this list is long, it is certainly not exhaustive; military personnel of all trades, branches and services have died while on duty, while the idea of ‘soldier first, tradesman second’ is an all-pervading mantra.
Even though these military jobs are dangerous, people still sign up to help their country in times of peril, showing courage and dedication, and for this, we take our hats off to them!
What profession do you feel is the most dangerous? Are there any that we’ve missed? If you think we’ve missed a certain profession out, then feel free to let us know in the comments section below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 6 October 2015 and contains contributions by staff writer Hayley Ramsey.