Civilian contractors have played a larger role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any other conflict in American history. They drove trucks with fuel and ammunition through battle zones. They protected American diplomats from insurgent attack. They fed and housed troops as mortars fell. They translated for soldiers on dangerous raids. Today, there are more contractors in war zones than troops.

The civilian contractors died like soldiers. They were injured like soldiers. But back home, the American government consigned this second army to a federal insurance system marked by substandard care and excessive delays, according to a joint investigation by ProPublica, the Los Angeles Times and ABC News. Military veterans and former cops were forced to fight for basic medical care, psychological counseling, even prosthetic legs. Janitors and cooks from impoverished countries hired to work at U.S. military bases were never told of their rights to medical treatment. Widows and children have been left in poverty.

The Labor Department oversees the system, mandated under a law known as the Defense Base Act. It requires federal contractors to purchase workers compensation insurance for civilians working in overseas war zones. But the agency has failed to enforce key provisions of the law, including informing employees of their rights and ensuring that companies purchase such insurance.

The system has produced hundreds of millions of dollars in out-sized profits for the private insurance companies, primarily the American International Group, the largest provider of battlefield insurance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taxpayers pay the premiums for the insurance and the government reimburses private carriers for any costs arising from combat injures. The top four providers received $1.5 billion in premiums through 2008, yet paid out only $900 million in benefits -- a profit margin of nearly 40 percent.

So far, more than 1,400 civilian have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 31,000 have reported injuries. The toll mounts daily.