Monday, October 19, 2009

Private Contractors Paying a Heavy Price in Iraq and Afghanistan

During my tour in Iraq in 2004, I was proud to meet many of the private contractors who served in civilian jobs. These men and women protected diplomats, guarded facilities, drove trucks, and filled a multitude of jobs that had to be done. They have also suffered comrades killed and wounded.

The following article from the Orlando Sentinel via the Chicago Tribune, talks about the tragedy of one of those civilians wounded in 2004 (Reggie Lane, pictured above). Sadly, these heroes don't have the same support system that awaits soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

This story will break your heart:

* * * *

In U.S. wars, contractors' pain is private

They suffer without support available to military veterans

By T. Christian Miller
Special to Tribune Newspapers
October 18, 2009

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.

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.

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 had been childhood friends and were fiercely loyal to each other.

"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. soldiers and suffering the same kinds of injuries.

Contract workers from the U.S. have been mostly men, primarily middle-age, many of them military veterans drawn by money, patriotism or both, according to interviews and public records.

Nearly 1,600 civilian workers -- both Americans and foreign nationals -- have died in the two war zones. Thousands more have been injured.

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 soldiers.

"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."

Before Reggie Lane went to Iraq, he and Linda Lane worked as a truck-driving team, steering tractor-trailers across the country.

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

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.

By November of that year, Reggie was on his way to Iraq.

"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."

More than five years have passed since Lane's convoy was attacked. The total cost of Lane's care for the rest of his life could be as much as $8.9 million, according to an estimate from the insurance company AIG. The bill will be paid by the federal government, which reimburses insurers for combat-related claims from war-zone workers.

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

Reggie Lane 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.

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If anyone knows of any organization dedicated to helping these wounded civilian warriors, please let me know, and I will post that information here.

Charles M. Grist
(The website for my book: "My Last War: A Vietnam Veteran's Tour in Iraq")

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