THE BLOG

Honoring Veterans of the Disposable Army

11/11/2009 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By T. Christian Miller, ProPublica

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 was 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 !

T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica, America's largest investigative newsroom.