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 job 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 10 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 fulfil this role), riflemen act as the literal boots on the ground of any military operation. They are responsible for patrolling, interacting with the local populace and, depending on their tactical guidance, actively engaging in firefights with the enemy. As a result, riflemen often find themselves in vulnerable and extremely dangerous situations.
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 bombmakers 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. Either way, 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.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a role that carries considerable risk. Not only is there a complete 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 – immortalised 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.
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 noncombatants 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 armoured 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. Johnson Beharry, an APC driver with the British Army, was awarded the Victoria Cross for twice leading his convoy out of ambushes in Iraq, demonstrating the levels of danger involved.
7. Pararescue / Winchman
Most services have a variant of the ‘aviation survival technician’, although the UK has no recognised 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 unpredictably 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 fulfil 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, technically, 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.
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.
As already mentioned, 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.
In the meantime, if you think we’ve missed a certain profession out, then feel free to let us know in the comments section below.
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This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 26 October 2015.