Shadow Army, Hidden Casualties

We often talk about the "shadow army" fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, describing of course, the tens of thousands of civilian contractors hired by the U.S. military to do everything the regular Army once did – from guarding diplomats and training local police to driving supply trucks and serving chow on base.

Then it makes perfect sense to talk about the "shadow casualties," which, as of December 2009, totaled 1,757 deaths and more than 39,000 injuries among all contractors on the U.S. payroll since 2001. Add that to American military casualties so far (5,389 fatalities and at least 88,105 injuries [.pdf]), and you have a good picture of the "cakewalk" these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned out to be.

Thanks to an ongoing investigation by, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Times and ABC News, it has become clear that, like our military service members, former civilian contractors are struggling with life-altering injuries and a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to pay out promised health benefits. They feel hustled and cast-off by employers who promised one thing then delivered another. Foreign workers fare even worse: they are routinely swindled out of their health care and death benefits while suffering through substandard care and hostile environments.

In other words, contractors are just as expendable, even more so, than our men and women in uniform. But worse, no one seems to care, because contractors’ motivations always appear more venal than patriotic.

Fair or not, the lack of sympathy is easy to trace, right back to corporations that have consistently earned our contempt: Blackwater (now Xe) and KBR (formerly of Halliburton) have been cited over the years by government auditors and/or private lawsuits for corruption, waste, fraud, and even negligent death and murder over the course of the two-front war. Anyone working for these outfits is considered part of the problem.

Maybe so, but the truth rarely nestles neatly into little black and white boxes. When I was working on a piece for The American Conservative last year called "Hired Guns," I was haunted by the story of Walter Zbryski, as told by his brother Richard:

"Richard Zbryski put the shadowy existence of the private parallel army in cold, hard perspective when he described how the body of his brother, Walter Zbryski, a 56-year-old retired New York City firefighter, was shipped home from his job as a contracted truck driver in Iraq. ‘What really upset me was that he was laying there floating in 6 inches of his own body fluids,’ still wearing his bloodied clothes, with half of his head blown away, Zbryski told the Chicago Tribune."

"They didn’t even clean him up for us," said Zbryski, who told the paper in March 2007 that Walter’s employer, KBR, had planned to "dump my brother at the airport" until he started contacting local newspapers, then the multi-billion dollar defense giant agreed to pick up the funeral tab.

Many would say Zbryski knew what he was getting into, that he had "asked for it" – heck, they say the same about troops who get their legs blown off or their brains scrambled inside their helmets. They’d just say Zbryski was worse – that he was over there simply for the

But to get distracted like this lets the real culprit – the U.S. government, which pays KBR billions year after year to hire the Zbryskis of the world – off the hook. For the last eight years, Uncle Sam has recruited both soldier and civilian as fodder for the war machine and obscured the cost and the numbers. As of September there were 43,987 American citizens among the 242,230 U.S.-paid contractors overseas; add that to the nearly 200,000 pledged/existing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and you have a footprint of nearly half a million. Meanwhile, the government has allowed a near-crisis situation to develop back home, as vet and ex-contractor struggle with insurance and benefit claims, PTSD, high suicide rates, and the loss of any productive life after the war.

In other words, they are all screwed. As a human being, and an American whose tax dollars were funneled into this meat grinder for eight years, I say "they asked for it" just doesn’t cut it.

“It’s almost like we’re this invisible, discardable military. Once we’ve done our jobs, they can actually sidetrack us and not worry about us anymore,” Tim Newman, a contractor who trained police in Iraq, told ProPublica last year. Newman lost his leg to a roadside bomb and fought a U.S.-subsidized insurance company for a year just to get a prosthetic leg recommended by his doctors.

In an award-winning series exploring these issues, ProPublica senior investigative writer T. Christian Miller and his team brought together what is arguably the most comprehensive deconstruction of the shadow army and what happens to its less-fortunate foot soldiers once they stop collecting a paycheck. While soldiers and veterans fight the government bureaucracy for their due, former contractors with serious injuries struggle against major insurance providers contracted with the government and subsidized by the taxpayer. The current system is dominated by the already-infamous American International Group (AIG), which is making money hand-over-fist, according to the report:

"The system has produced hundreds of millions of dollars in outsized 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."

The American taxpayer has already shelled out billions to bail out AIG from the financial crisis it wrought upon itself, not to mention the rest of the global financial industry. Now we find out it’s denying medical benefits to people with lost limbs and severe brain injuries so that it can make a buck. Classic.

Civilian contractors in wartime are supposed to be covered through the Defense Base Act. According to ProPublica:

"The number of civilians filing injury claims under the Defense Base Act soared twentyfold between 2003 and 2007, reaching 11,000 per year before falling to just under 6,000 last year. Total payments for health care and other benefits rose fourteenfold during the first four years of the Iraq war, to more than $170 million annually. …

"After 2002, insurance companies quadrupled their premiums, according to a 2005 GAO report. Early in the Iraq war, insurance brokers charged prices for premiums that in some cases equaled the salaries of the insured workers. In other words, it cost taxpayers $100,000 per year to insure a civilian paid $100,000 per year.

“‘It was a market that was out of control,’ said Sara Payne, a senior vice president for Rutherfoord, an insurance broker."

I bet the average American has no clue there are this many injured contractors, and that he is subsidizing the $170 million a year that insurance companies are paying out to care for them. Meanwhile, ProPublica points out that AIG has a "near-monopoly" on the insurance racket, driving up premiums for employers and preventing competition. It also makes a tidy profit, mostly by contesting payouts to the injured parties who need it most:

"AIG said that it pays the ‘vast majority’ of claims without dispute. And the Labor Department has said that only about 8 percent of claims are contested. However, the Times-ProPublica investigation found those statistics misleading because insurance companies rarely contest minor claims, which account for the vast bulk. They are much more likely to dispute claims involving serious injuries.

"When an injury resulted in more than four days of lost work – about 9,000 of 31,000 total war zone claims – insurers filed a protest in nearly half of the cases. Even when a worker was killed, the companies filed protests in more than a third of the cases."

Meanwhile, reporters found numerous cases in which private companies – balking at the cost and looking out for their profit margins – failed to buy insurance for their workers, period. Though vowing action, the U.S. Department of Labor has so far done nothing to hold AIG or the neglectful companies accountable, as they "are not an enforcement agency," officials said.

So Uncle Sam’s hands are tied on insurance, making it particularly painful for foreign workers who have nowhere else to turn – including translators whose lives are literally in mortal danger. "Unfortunately, like most U.S. health care, the medical treatment and disability/death benefits for contractors is provided by private insurance companies, who have a vested interest in maximizing profits and minimizing payouts," said war correspondent Pratap Chatterjee, who also runs the invaluable, and contributed to the ProPublica series.

In an interview with, Chatterjee said the plight of the foreign contract worker is never considered in context. "The biggest problem is faced by third-country nationals who are covered by the Defense Base Act but who rarely understand the system well enough to claim benefits. Unfortunately, the media (mainstream and others) are either interested in talking about ‘heroic’ soldiers or ‘evil’ mercenaries and don’t realize that the bulk of the military’s work is done by low-paid Third World laborers who do all the dirty and dull work."

And their injuries and deaths never register even a blip on our radar, as they are tucked away from military casualty counts and therefore skew our understanding of "reality on the ground." Here’s a fact: at least 360 interpreters hired by U.S.-based Titan Corporation and its successor company L3-Communications were killed in Iraq from March 2003 through March 2008. That’s more than the 317 non-American coalition soldiers killed in Iraq during the same time period!

More stats here.

I spoke with Jake Allen, a 38-year-old former Marine who now works as a security contractor in Afghanistan and wrote an e-book about getting into the private security industry. He contacted me after I wrote this short piece for @TAC about bad behavior and corruption in the industry last year. He maintains the vast majority of individual contractors are well-meaning and law-abiding and actually want more regulation and oversight, if only for the security and to keep the bad actors out.

But in a more recent interview, Allen said something interesting for someone in the business. He believes the government should reduce its dependence on the private sector – particularly the use of foreign nationals – to wage our wars (it’s gotten too unwieldy, too controversial). But it probably won’t because foreign contractors, especially in security, give the military "cover" in hot spots throughout the global battlefield. He pointed out that foreign contractors can kill and be killed without the public scrutiny or accountability that would be demanded if they were American.

That seems to be the real thrust of the message here. Because the military relies so much today on the private sector, it has little to gain from
taking issue with how individual contractors are treated. Nor does the government gain from calling out contractors when they act badly in the field, or even recognizing them when they do good (check out Miller’s latest article on the hush-hush Defense of Freedom ceremonies). A quiet shadow army is a more effective shadow army.

But those of us opposed to the war have everything to gain by drawing attention to the plight of these individuals – ex-mercenaries, profiteers, suckers, victims, whatever you want to call them – who often turn out to be regular Americans (and foreigners) looking for a decent job and security for their families back home. Their high casualty rates and stories of abuse at the hands of the government and the private sector may stimulate a real wake-up call to the corruption of military privatization and all that is wrong with trying to fight an endless war "on the cheap."

No more will it be cheap – take a look at the insurance premiums, the lawsuits, the shattered lives, the bad press. They can’t keep these things in the shadows forever.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.