A ball of fire hurtled toward Randy Ross, a convoy commander for KBR, the Defense Department contractor. Ross was driving his truck out of Baghdad, where he had just delivered fuel and mail for U.S. troops in August 2011, when Iraqi insurgents fired an armor-piercing explosive at him. It blew Ross’s door open, blasted him out of the truck, and torched the engine. He lay bleeding and unconscious on the ground; second-degree burns seared his arm, from biceps to fingers. He thought he would die on that road. But it wasn’t Ross’s first skirmish — Islamists had attacked his fuel convoy in 2004, killing five drivers and kidnapping another — and he again proved resilient. After he recovered, Ross later took a job on a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. When he began to forget things (a common symptom of traumatic brain injury), his supervisor and coworkers started belittling him. When a defective steel door “the size of a dinner table” fell on his shoulder, Ross returned home.
In Maryland, Ross, now 55, faced another battle: how to get good care.
Defense contractors’ work is crucial overseas. Washington increasingly outsources high-risk jobs once performed by service members — everything from maintaining weapons, to providing security, to training troops. The practice allows the military to minimize deployments and risk. “A generation ago, everybody in uniform went to basic training, learned to fight — and some trained to be cooks or laundry managers,” says Steven Schooner, a professor of government-procurement law at George Washington University. “Today, every support function is supported by [contractors]. They’re responsible for food, laundry, showers, transportation, communication, every conceivable creature comfort, and housing. The military today can no longer move, fight, or sustain itself without contractor support.”
To cut costs after the first Persian Gulf War, the military disbanded many units doing support work. The result is a huge detachment of private citizens on the front lines today — many of whom, like Ross, are not permitted to carry weapons. In recent years, contractors have outnumbered troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of this summer, 101,855 U.S. contractors were in Afghanistan but just 55 percent as many troops; 7,735 contractors worked in Iraq and just 3 percent as many troops.
Yet the contract workers are not treated at all like soldiers, even when they’re injured in the line of duty. The Defense Base Act, a 72-year-old law, mandates insurance for them and even remits the premium to their employers. To collect, injured workers must navigate the insurance thicket and government bureaucracy. American International Group owns about 85 percent of the policies for contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Gary Pitts, Ross’s Texas-based attorney. Pitts says that since the beginning of those wars, AIG has largely denied or ignored claims until it is sued, although he says in recent years the insurer has settled more cases. (The government does not track these figures.) AIG did not respond to requests for comment.
For two years, AIG denied Ross’s requests to see a neurologist for brain-injury tests. It took months to get the OK to see a psychiatrist (required before he could get shoulder surgery), who diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder. “They just denied everything,” Ross laments. While AIG is paying most of Ross’s claims now — after he got a lawyer — others are not so lucky. Litigation can take years. Until their case is resolved, many disabled contractors can’t work, and they must pay out of pocket for treatment. “I’ve seen people in real economic and medical distress, having to go on welfare, moving in with their parents,” Pitts says. Those who don’t get an attorney may give up, or take whatever they get from the insurance company — often, little to nothing.
The government, amazingly, does not even count contractor casualties. The Pentagon tallies 6,627 military and Defense Department civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. But during that time, nearly 3,000 contractors were killed and 30,000 were injured, according to insurance claims filed under the Defense Base Act on their behalf — 31 percent of the total losses. Yet there is no complete database of who they are, where they served, or how they were injured or killed. In Washington, where virtually every interest group has representation, Pitts notes that wartime contractors have no union or national association dedicated to their cause.
The disparities are clearest in health care. If a service member and a contractor are side by side when a roadside bomb explodes, they receive similar emergency treatment. When they return stateside, however, “the military individual is going to go to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], and, after recovery, be passed on to the VA system and entitled to the veterans’ benefits basically for his or her life,” Schooner says. “The contractor will be on his or her own. The government has no responsibility. No medical care. Nothing.” Even if contractors’ insurance claims are processed without delay, the maximum cash payout is far inferior to that for the military, Schooner says. (There is a modest bereavement benefit.)
While contractors can earn more money than troops — Ross was making about $100,000 a year — their key economic advantage to the government is that they pose no long-term costs, such as pensions, retirement funds, or health care. The Pentagon funds 211 programs for psychological help and traumatic brain injury for troops and veterans, says Carrie Farmer, a Rand policy researcher. “There’s no program we’ve heard of that’s similar for contractors.”
At a civilian mental-health center where he went for his PTSD, a therapist told Ross not to talk about his experiences overseas — the very thing he needed counseling for — because he was upsetting other patients. “I needed to be in with the soldiers,” Ross says. “But when we come home, there’s nobody to turn to.”