Why Do We Treat Military Contractors Different Than Soldiers?

They do much of the same work in war zones, and they get injured and sometimes killed. Yet they don’t receive the same kind of care as service members.

FILE - In this April 4, 2004 file photo, plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight as Iraqi demonstrators loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr attempt to advance on a facility being defended by U.S. and Spanish soldiers in Najaf, Iraq. The security firm once known as Blackwater Worldwide will continue protecting American diplomats in Iraq for months to come, far longer than has previously been acknowledged, even though the company has no license to operate in the country and has been told by the State Department that its contracts will not be renewed. 
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.”

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