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Contractors in Iraq Are Hidden Casualties of War

In April 2004, Reggie Lane was driving a fuel truck in Iraq for a defense contractor when insurgents attacked his convoy with rocket-propelled grenades, causing him numerous injuries. For most of the five years since, Lane, now 60, has spent his days in silence, cared for at the Country Gardens Adult Foster Care in Central Point, Ore. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

This story was published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 6, 2009.

Reporting from Central Point, Ore. – A nurse rocked him awake as pale dawn light crept into the room. "C'mon now, c'mon," the nurse murmured. "Time to get up."

Reggie Lane was once a hulking man of 260 pounds. Friends called him "Big Dad." Now, he weighed less than 200 pounds and his brain was severely damaged. He groaned angry, wordless cries.

The nurse moved fast. Two bursts of deodorant spray under each useless arm. Then he dressed Lane and used a mechanical arm to hoist him into a wheelchair.

He wheeled Big Dad down a hallway and parked the chair in a beige dining room, in front of a picture window. Outside stretched a green valley of pear trees filled with white blossoms.

Lane's head fell forward, his chin buried in his chest. His legs crossed and uncrossed involuntarily. His left index finger was rigid and pointed, as if frozen in permanent accusation.

Linda Lane and her husband Reggie Lane. In 2004, Lane was driving a fuel truck in Iraq for a defense contractor when insurgents attacked his convoy with rocket-propelled grenades. For most of the five years since, Lane, now 60, has spent his days in silence -- a reminder of the hidden costs of relying on civilian contract workers to support the U.S. war effort.

His wife, Linda, said visiting her husband was difficult. They were childhood friends and fiercely loyal to each other. On this spring morning, she caressed his hand and told him she loved him.

"He was a good man. He paid his bills. He took care of his family," she said, her breathing labored from a pulmonary disease. "He's a human being who fought for his country. He doesn't deserve to be thrown away."

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has depended on contract workers more than in any previous conflict -- to cook meals for troops, wash laundry, deliver supplies and protect diplomats, among other tasks. Tens of thousands of civilians have worked in the two battle zones, often facing the same dangers as U.S. troops and suffering the same kinds of injuries.

Contract workers from the U.S. have been mostly men, primarily middle-aged, many of them military veterans drawn by money, patriotism or both, according to interviews and public records. They are police officers, truck drivers, firefighters, mechanics and craftsmen, mostly from rural corners of America, especially the South.

Nearly 1,600 civilian workers -- both Americans and foreign nationals -- have died in the two war zones. Thousands more have been injured. (More than 5,200 U.S. service members have been killed and 35,000 wounded.)

Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops.

Reggie and Linda Lane, after the attack, in this undated photo taken between April 2004 and Jan. 2005 in Houston. There are no veterans' halls for civilian workers, no Gold Star Wives, no military hospitals. Politicians pay little attention to their problems, and the military has not publicized their contributions.

"These guys are like the Vietnam vets of this generation," said Lee Frederiksen, a psychologist who worked for Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago-based firm that provides counseling for war zone workers. "The normal support that you would get if you were injured in the line of duty as a police officer or if you were injured in the military . . . just doesn't exist."

Herbert J. Lanese, former chief executive of DynCorp International, one of the largest employers of civilian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "These are people who have given their lives in the service of our country. They are the unappreciated patriots of our country at this point in time."

Lane was born in Ventura and moved to Grants Pass, Ore., when he turned 12. He met Linda there, and the two grew up together.

After high school, Reggie enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam. He and Linda found each other after he returned. By then, each had been married and divorced, and each had a child.

As a pair, they were inseparable. Reggie was steady, strong. Linda was energetic and outgoing. They eventually found work as a truck-driving team, steering tractor-trailers across the country.

His CB radio handle was "Grizzly." Hers was "Wild Cat." He loved country music and Tom Clancy novels, G. Gordon Liddy's talk show and Honda motorcycles. She loved the open road, the speed of the truck.

"We went to see the big wide world driving a truck. What an adventure," Linda recalled.

But work was haphazard, and the pay was modest. Together, they made about $32,000 a year. They had a hard time keeping up with bills and twice filed for bankruptcy.

In the late 1990s, they sold their home in Oregon and moved to Montana, where land was cheaper.

In the fall of 2003, Linda heard that defense contractor KBR Inc. was hiring truck drivers to deliver fuel, food and supplies for the military in Iraq. The salary was $88,000 a year, more than they had ever earned.

"We wouldn't be on easy street," Linda said. "But we wouldn't be stressed."

By November, Reggie was on his way to Iraq. He arrived during a turbulent period, with the insurgency raging. Convoys regularly came under attack. The trucks were not armored.

According to his doctors, Reggie Lane was able to communicate and interact before he left Houston in 2005 (Undated photo, taken between Apr. 2004 and Jan. 2005 in Houston). "He didn't go over there to fight a war. He went over there because [KBR] said, 'You'll have armed guards,' " Linda said. "They promised big money. 'You'll be protected, no problem.' "

On April 9, 2004, Reggie Lane and a friend, Jason Hurd, rolled out of a base south of Baghdad to deliver fuel to Balad, north of the city. The convoy was outside Baghdad when gunfire rang out. Hurd saw Reggie's truck careen to the side of the road.

Hurd pulled over. A rocket-propelled grenade had shattered the windshield. Reggie was lying face-up on the shoulder of the road. His right arm was gone below the elbow. His face was covered in shrapnel wounds. He was drenched in blood.

The rest of the convoy moved ahead, apparently oblivious. Hurd fumbled with Reggie's arm, trying to apply a tourniquet. Then a group of military vehicles pulled over to help.

Soldiers helped stabilize Lane, who shuddered awake and asked for water. An Army helicopter evacuated him to a U.S. base, where he was put on an emergency flight to Germany.

Linda got the news from a military doctor. A few days later, Reggie called. He told her not to worry.

"I still got one arm left to hug you with," he said.

It was the last conversation she would have with her husband.

Two days later, another military doctor in Germany called Linda, asking permission to perform an emergency tracheotomy on Reggie. A blood clot had dislodged, blocking the flow of blood to his brain.

"My head is spinning. I'm trying to digest what they're telling me," Linda said. "I'm deciding this long-distance by phone, and it's someone I love."

Ten days after the attack, Reggie Lane was on a flight back to the U.S., headed to a Houston hospital. KBR paid to have Linda meet her husband in Texas.

She was unprepared for the sight. A raw, red stump was all that remained of his right arm. There was a hole in his throat. She could see his intestines, which were left exposed to aid in cleaning out shrapnel. His body was swollen and purple. He was unresponsive, his pupils mere pinpoints.

Over the next nine months, Linda lived out of a hotel in downtown Houston. She became her husband's advocate, navigating a complex medical world with little guidance.

"It was a lot of one foot in front of the other. I was pretty devastated," she said.

Slowly, Lane's condition improved. Toward the end of his hospital stay, he could respond to questions. He would say: "Love Linda." He was trying to stand up with help.

"By the time he left, he was interacting, communicating," said Dr. Sunil Kothari, a neurosurgeon who coordinated Reggie's care at the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Memorial Hermann in Houston, one of the country's top rehabilitation hospitals for brain injury. "Near the end, he was beginning to answer questions, starting to vocalize."

In January 2005, doctors cleared Reggie for release. He was going home.

Grants Pass had a handful of nursing homes. They provided physical and speech therapy, but Linda was dissatisfied with the care. She confronted workers at one home, leading to Reggie's discharge. He returned to a hospital.

Linda was dealing with her own health problems. Her weight ballooned. She was admitted to the hospital repeatedly with breathing difficulties.

As Linda searched for a home for her husband, she got into a dispute with American International Group Inc., the insurance carrier for KBR. Linda wanted her husband close to home. She said AIG insisted that he go to a facility in Portland, where care was less expensive than in the hospital.

The Lanes struggled with their insurer to find Reggie a home. According to his lawyer, Roger Hawkins, Reggie's mental state declined after leaving Houston. Click to view an audio slideshow. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times) Troops injured in Iraq are guaranteed care at Veterans Affairs facilities. In contrast, contract workers depend on workers' compensation insurance paid for by the federal government under the Defense Base Act. They often must fight with insurers to get medical bills paid.

Linda hired a lawyer, and AIG relented, allowing Reggie to be placed in an adult foster care home near Grants Pass.

The lawyer, Roger Hawkins of Los Angeles, said it was the least Reggie deserved.

"You look in his eyes and you see that somewhere, he realizes what is going on," Hawkins said. "He's sitting there with his arm missing and knowing that he's never going to get better."

AIG and KBR declined to comment on the case.

Reggie's mental state had gradually declined since he'd left Houston. Before, he spoke. Now he descended into long silences broken only by grunts.

Told of Lane's condition, Kothari, who treated him in Houston, expressed concern.

"Decline is not typical," Kothari said. "If someone goes to a nursing facility, if they happen not to get stimuli, it means the brain could not heal as well as it would otherwise."

Jim Gregg, operator of the foster care home where Lane was placed, said the facility was not equipped for advanced physical or speech therapy. In their home on a 4-acre farm, Gregg and his wife provided basic medical care and monitoring to half a dozen elderly patients.

"It's a boring life. He just sits here," Gregg said. "It's not a stimulating environment."

Gregg closed his facility earlier this year, and Lane was moved to another foster home. The total cost of Lane's care for the rest of his life could be as much as $8.9 million, according to an AIG estimate. The bill will be paid by the federal government, which reimburses insurers for combat-related claims from war zone workers.

Linda Lane died July 10. She had been hospitalized after suffering respiratory distress, family members said.

Reggie let out a wail when relatives told him the news. "I had never heard anything like that before," said Bev Glasgow, who runs Lane's current foster home.

Glasgow arranged for a van to take Reggie to a memorial service for his wife. It was held in a state park alongside the Rogue River. Under the shade of scrub oak and aspen, he watched as Linda's family and friends sang "Amazing Grace" and looked at old photos of the couple.

Diane Firestone, Reggie's sister, visited him shortly after Linda's death. She said the family accepted that Reggie's condition was unlikely to change. But, she said, they did not believe his sacrifices had been adequately recognized, by his company or the country.

She knelt beside her brother and asked him about the attack on his convoy.

"Hey, Reg," she said. "Do you know it's been five years? It doesn't seem that long to me. Does it seem that long to you?"

Reggie blinked twice, hard -- his signal for yes.

---

Times staff photographer Francine Orr contributed to this report. View an audio slideshow of Reggie and Linda Lane.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of injured war zone contractors.

 Mother Dorothy Turpen (left) and caregiver Bev Glasgow sit next to Reggie Lane during a memorial service for his wife, Linda, in July 2009. Linda had been hospitalized after suffering respiratory distress. Under the shade of scrub oak and aspen, Reggie watched as Linda’s family and friends sang 'Amazing Grace' and looked at old photos of the couple.  (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Marcie Hascall Clark

Oct. 6, 2009, 9 a.m.

Thanks for your continuing coverage of Civilian Contractor issues.
This story is a tragic example of what happens when the insurance company behaves in this criminally negligent manner.
The stress of fighting these heartless people for medical care for your loved one takes a huge toll on the spouse. 
There is no way of knowing how well off Reggie might be if he had received proper care.
There are currently many contractors with untreated PTSD and TBI whose claims are being held up for years by AIG and CNA and the Department of Labor continues to allow this.

The tears are rolling as I sit here reading this. This story could be about anyone of us who were or are still there. The total disregard these companies have for their employees before and after injury.

I think there are a lot of people who do not realize how many civilians have been killed and injured supporting our troops.

Thanks for another amazing article!

Ms Sparky
http://mssparky.com/

Dick Brandlon

Oct. 6, 2009, 6:59 p.m.

Of course anyone has empathy with people who are grievously wounded or killed. A further tragedy is the kind of value system that would impel someone to take this kind of risk.
Soldiers who are wounded or killed suffer for the causes they are told are noble and just. Contractors are there by choice, determined in many cases by a desire for wealth. The CEOs who dispatch these people do so with their eyes on their bank accounts. The Halliburtons and the Blackwaters are today’s Hessians, reaping profits from the blood and pain of others.
I feel deeply sorry for the casualties of this kind of free enterprise.

Thanks T. Christian.  Hubby decided NOT to go back after 4 yrs in Iraq.  We will be in touch soon.  Will be lecturing next week on this topic at our large campus university SDSU —  Thanks for ALL that you do for our families.  http://www.shadowsofiraq.com

Contractors are not even counted as “forces we have in Iraq”. These people are partly very highly paid, much more than the troops. They perform a task that in WW II was performed by soldiers who were part of the Quartermaster Corps.
  The supply column attacks also reflect what happens when you are in an unfriendly country with many “insurgents”. In WW II, Tito’s Serbs tied down 10 division in Yugoslavia, and the country was never completely under German control.
  We see the same problem, only worse in Afghanistan, where the only way that troops can be added is to fly them in. Many critical supplies (like helicopters and ammunition) also arrive by air, because Russia does not allow war materiel to cross their airspace, and the route via Karachi to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass is eminently unsafe. Many trucks ans several depots have been destroyed en route to our troops, who often lack supplies for that reason.

Hello everyone.  As you have read many of my blogs you know I fight with everyone to get the correct treatment.  I fight because I care, I fight because it should not be done alone. I will stand next to everyone everyday in this damn battlefield. That is called the DOL, DOD, AIG and CNA to name a few. 
For the words above about it not being a choice for military members.  I hate to say this but every soldier in the United States Military made a choice to join the military.  No one made them No one held a gun to their head.  The United States is the only country that the military is all voluntary. When we take our oath we know the chances, we know what we might be asked to do and go.
I have held the Dog Tags I wore them for many years.  So did my husband.  And guess what to those who call him a mercenaries sham on you.  My husband goes because he loves his country.  Without these men and women who are contractors our soldiers would not get fed, supplies, civilians like scientist, doctors and government would not get place to place or have proper security.  There is not enough Soldiers to do all the jobs that are needed to be done. 
So for these people who use words that do not know how to use them you join the military then and do all the other jobs. 
These contractors do everything from clean the toilets, laundry and feed our soldiers.  To making sure they have all the extra bodies securing others the military does not have the man power for. 
So unless you want to start the draft all over again you all need to close your mouth and get a dictionary out and learn the definition of words. 
When my husband works he works for the United States with the Department of State.  He works within the laws of his country, and the country he is serving in.  So next time you want to open your mouth look in the mirror and see what uniform you are wearing.  What have you done to serve your country and help out the soldiers daily lives overseas?  Because I know one of my husbands job’s was to make sure that the men and women he protected made it home to their families. 

For others they make sure that Bombs are destroyed, land mines are removed, homes get built, people are fed, water is running, bases are safe, laundry is cleaned, the local police are getting trained, supplies get from one end to another by driving threw dangerous areas and many many other jobs.  Yes they might get paid more the soldier but they also are not given health insurance for their families, housing, VA benefits just to name a few.  They do this as a way to serve so respect them just like you would if my husband was still wearing his uniform.  Many of these contractors have worn the uniform for the military.  They have choice to go back as a contractor.  So fault them for wanting to feed their families.  They want to serve just not wearing green. 
These men and women work for the United States Government and deserve the proper care no matter what country they are working in.  As long as they are working for the US Government and they are the contractor for these contractors they need to do their job like these men and women do theirs.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Disposable Army

Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan

War contractors return home with the same scars as soldiers, but without the support.

The Story So Far

Civilian contractors have been an indispensable part of the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have returned home without the support available for troops in uniform.

Tens of thousands of civilians have worked in the two battle zones, delivering fuel, protecting diplomats and translating for troops, among other jobs.

More »

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