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Rural areas take greater brunt of Iraq War, UW-Madison research shows

July 28, 2010 By Stacy Forster

The Iraq War has taken a greater toll on the nation’s non-metropolitan areas because troops from rural areas experience higher rates of death in the war than those from urban parts of the United States, according to a new study by a University of Wisconsin–Madison sociologist.

Rural troops experience higher death rates regardless of cause or military branch, suggesting that the consequences of war are more keenly felt by non-metropolitan areas of the U.S.

That puts military personnel from rural areas at a disadvantage to their peers from urban areas, shows the study, which was published earlier this month in the journal Demographic Research.

“We know that rural people enlist in the military at higher rates, and once there, the rural troops are at a disadvantage because they have a higher death rate,” says Katherine Curtis, assistant professor of community and environmental sociology in the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Rural communities are in fact experiencing a disproportionate brunt of the impacts of war.”

Disproportionate military deaths may also perpetuate the reasons rural youth join the military, Curtis says. The effect on the available labor force is likely felt more dramatically, making it harder for those communities to attract industry and jobs, reducing the household earning potential in those areas, she says.

“The loss of a person in a smaller population pool puts those areas at a disadvantage,” Curtis says. “What does that mean for the economic viability of the community?”

The study uses data about troop deaths in Iraq from the start of the Iraq War on March 20, 2003, through Dec. 31, 2007, as well as U.S. Census Bureau definitions of metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.

Data from the U.S. Department of Defense show that 3,853 U.S. troops died in Iraq during that time period. Of those deaths, 898, or 23 percent, were among troops from non-metropolitan counties across the country.

The total combat-related death rate for all troops in Iraq was 3.43 per 1,000 individuals. However, the death rate for rural troops was 4.09 per 1,000 for rural troops, compared with a death rate of 3.27 per 1,000 for troops from urban areas.

While the difference in death rates is a single person per 1,000 in population, the impact of that loss is greater in a rural area because of the lower population concentration, the study says.

“While there are dramatic consequences for the families and friends of the deceased regardless of community size, each death has a greater impact on the non-metropolitan community given population size, and very likely, the density of kinship and social network characteristics of less urban places,” the study says. “The social and economic implications for those communities cannot be dismissed, and are more likely to be magnified by the lower population size that is less able to absorb these losses.”

The research also shows that deaths in the Iraq War are not evenly distributed across the U.S. Those states seeing a greater impact are in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest.

The study does not look into reasons why soldiers from rural areas have experienced a higher death rate in the Iraq War.

“For those who are interested in studying the military and the effects of war, this study provides a baseline to motivate additional research about why there is this inequality,” Curtis says. “Is it training? Is it something about the background of people going into the military that puts them at a greater or less advantaged position?”

This study also provides local organizations and governments with information that can be used to better prepare for the disproportionate impact of War on their communities.

Curtis authored the study with Collin F. Payne, a recent UW–Madison graduate now studying at the University of Pennsylvania.

To read the full study, visit