ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Honoring Veterans of the Disposable Army

Today we honor the veterans who have served in the country's armed forces. Nobody seriously questions whether they deserve such recognition. The men and women who defended this country and fought its wars made immeasurable sacrifices.

I have spent much of the last year writing about another group of people who suffered losses on behalf of U.S. interests abroad: the civilian contractors injured or killed while doing their jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are not, of course, soldiers. They could quit their jobs and go home any time they wanted. Many were paid far higher wages than their military counterparts. They knew they were signing up to take a specific job in a dangerous part of the world.

And yet, neither are the contractors working in Afghanistan and Iraq ordinary laborers. Civilians compose half the manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have seen and experienced the full horror of war. More than a thousand have been killed. Thousands more have suffered debilitating physical and mental injuries. And yet, the Pentagon does not even know how many have died, nor how many are actually working (PDF).

I have come to see the civilian contractors as a new kind of class in the demography of war. They are quasi-veterans: civilians who have experienced war much as soldiers do. There are tens of thousands of them. And while it's hard to argue that they deserve ticker tape parades and Medals of Honor, it's also hard to believe that they should be sent home with little more than a pay stub and a patchy health care system that doesn't even address basic medical needs.

I received a letter from a former KBR contractor which crystallized the strange position of those who work in a war zone. D.A. Corson, who worked at a variety of companies in Iraq until 2008, wrote the following, which I thought worth sharing:

Civilian contactors in combat zones will likely continue to be a staple of military engagements. They cook, clean, make ice, purify water, install housing, do laundry, install and maintain generators for lighting, air conditioning, truck the beans, bullets and bandages, install latrines, wastewater treatment facilities, and as many of the other logistical functions as the military can give them to do so the troops can do their job, i.e., go out and, God willing, win the peace.

They too left their families, homes, and friends. They too labor 84-hour weeks, endure shellings, mortars, and RPG attacks, IEDS, and heat strokes. They too live on three meals a day of four different flavors of noodles or MREs when the convoys cannot get through and rations are running low. Some of them see to it that the bodies of your fallen sons, daughters, husbands, and wives are seen off from combat airfields with proper honors when no military personnel are available to do the honors themselves. They watch helplessly on Armed Forces media as our homes thousands of miles away are blown and washed away in hurricanes, floods and other disasters and wonder if their families are safe. Many die, are injured, captured and held as POWs; some have been beheaded. They too suffer high divorce rates and come home with their own cases of Combat Stress. Many serve for over a year and then came back 2 and 3 times for another year. Many are still there going on 5 and 6 years now. When they come home they have no Veteran's benefits, indeed, no benefits at all in many instances, save perhaps a very pricey COBRA.

Yes, all go for the money. They too are doing what they think necessary for their families to get a little piece of the American Dream, but they are not all a bunch of money-grubbing, carpetbagging, war profiteers. We are your neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow Americans. So many are there because they have to be. One young lady had just had a baby. Her husband had cancer, and she had to leave her newborn infant and other children, as well as her terribly ill husband to pay the bills and keep a roof over their head. But more than that, each wanted to serve our troops. They wanted to do their part. So many are Viet Nam veterans. They do their jobs; they serve our troops, proudly. They do it for them. They do it for freedom; they do it for our country. The American contractors all still take off their hats and get tears in their eyes when hearing the national anthem. When they go home their benefits end. Many are having to fight to get their medical insurance benefits for the injuries received and many families are fighting to get their life insurance benefits for their fallen loved ones.

They knew going in that returning to bands playing, flags waving, and such were not part of their bargain. That’s not why they went. However, in your churches and other ceremonies, when you ask your veterans to stand, after you have given them their well-deserved honors, you might want to give a thought to then asking any civilian contractors who served the troops in combat zones to stand up beside the vets too. I’ll bet they’d be proud to do so, again. Maybe there won’t be many in your particular gathering, but they are there: one for every soldier according to the Congressional Budget Reports and one dying for each 3 soldiers killed.

And by the way, you’re welcome. Maligned, appreciated, even counted or not, I am sure most would do it all again. It was an honor.

D. A. Corson
Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq --June 2004 through October 2006 B.I.A., Basrah, Iraq --July 2006 through May 2007 Ali Al-Saleem Air Base, Kuwait -- September-October 2007

God Bless America !

Finally.
Someone speaks out for us. I was a contractor at Phu Loi Viet-Nam in 1968 as well as Iraq 2005/6 at Camp Taji. I resigned in 2007 when my long standing request for a job description change was finally offically denied.  Regular work hours were 12 hrs daily seven days a week. Not to mention being on call at night one out of every four. Yes the pay and holidays were good and I was a willing and enthusastic participant who would truly like to return if I could get a driving job. Anybody out there need an experienced Class A heavy truck driver? Have passport will travel.

As for standing up for a disposable army I think it appropriate that readers be made aware of the fact that the vast majority of contractors are vets like myself. But certianly we all like all the recognition we can get. Especially when it’s been years since we served.

Jim Jones
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Although I agree that the appropriate respect and honor should be paid to those who served in the war zones as civilians, I question the strategic decision made by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld to employ the huge number of contractors in all operational positions.

Clearly, there are positions better filled with military personnel, especially in the area where discipline is crucial.

One of the strategic mistakes in the current wars had been, in the past eight years, to make inappropriate use of civilians, not to mention military personnel.

Let’s hope President Obama’s new strategy will make life better for both military and civilians overseas and after their return home.

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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