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Contractors face big risks in Iraq Print

by By Aaron Wasserman, Daily News staff - Dec 16, 2007

When Christine Johnson learned her husband had been seriously injured in Iraq while working for a private security contractor, a top company executive was at her door in Blackstone to tell her.

The executive, of SOC-SMG Inc., flew there from the company's headquarters in Minden, Nev. Johnson said she found his presence comforting.

As a mother of three, I'm worried about how I am going to get him from Iraq to here and take care of him," she said, referring to her husband, Billy, 39, a former Framingham police officer. "That's why they came to my door to let me know they're here and will take care of Billy's rehab."

The number of private contractors in Iraq rivals the number of U.S. troops. Many are not Americans, but the total number of contractors injured there has surpassed 10,000, raising the question of how to care for them once they return to the United States.

Of particular concern is psychological treatment, said people involved in the industry, because the private contracting industry is much more fragmented than the military and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The Army has been sending people to war theater for generations, so they know what systems should be provided," said Paul A. Brand, chief executive officer of Mission Critical Psychological Services LLC, a Chicago consultant for private contracting companies in conflict zones. "The contractors have little to none of that in place, and I think that's going to be exacerbated as more come back and have no one to turn to."

Federal law requires that all U.S. government contractors buy health insurance for their employees. Only a few insurers underwrite coverage for contractors in Iraq because the high risk drives up the price, said people in the industry.

The law, the Defense Base Act, has existed since the World War II era. But the Iraq War has created a unique strain because combat missions are happening at the same time as social and economic development programs, and the country's physical reconstruction. The former usually occurs before the two latter stages, said people in the industry.

"Never before in our history have we had all three at the same time," said Stan Soloway, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration who's now president of the Professional Services Council, a trade association representing a broad range of contractors. "What's happened, of course, is contractors are operating more broadly, they're more in-a-battlefield than ever before."

Iraq's battlefields are also much more blurred than those in previous wars, Brand said, leading to higher levels of "ambient stress."

"No matter where you are and what you're doing, you can very much be a victim of a traumatic incident," he said.

Estimates on the total number of all contractors in Iraq vary. Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, which represents security contractors, said it is about 180,000, surpassing U.S. troop totals. He noted that only about 25,000 are Americans; the rest are Iraqis or other nationalities.

Including all nationalities, 917 contractors were killed in Iraq and about 10,500 had been injured there through March 2007, according to the federal Labor Department, Reuters reported in July.

SOC-SMG says seven of its employees have been killed in Iraq, including the three who died in the incident that seriously wounded Billy Johnson. Most of its 2,400 contractors are based there, but the company does not provide specifics about what they do, where else they are based internationally, or how much they are paid, besides saying salaries "are well above what someone would receive for comparable work in the U.S."

The company does, however, always notify local press about all casualties shortly after the incidents occur, said chief administrative officer Anthony Casas. "We just feel it is the right thing to do," he explained.

Billy Johnson was providing security to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civilian contractors when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb last Sunday, the Army Corps has confirmed. His right leg has been amputated below the knee and he suffered head trauma and a collapsed lung, but he is expected to survive, his wife said.

Locally, it is difficult to determine how many area men and women work for private contractors. They often once served in the military, particularly those now in the security field. But several municipal veterans' agents contacted last week say they are not notified about contractors' return from conflict zones like they are when troops return from combat.

People in the industry said contracting companies care about the health of their employees once they return from Iraq. They would not attract quality workers in a high-risk field if they did not, industry experts said.

"The best businesses, just like good non-profits and good governments, care about their people and that's what makes you survive and thrive," Soloway said. "I don't believe there's any reason at all to believe contractors are less supportive of their employees than anyone else."

But the contracting industry's structure can also complicate care for injured returning workers, those in the industry said. Contractors often do not return together to a company's offices, but rather to their separate, far-flung hometowns, and are no longer surrounded by people who shared their experiences in Iraq.

"Workers aren't necessarily from where we're based; they're not deployed from headquarters," said Gregory Lagana, a senior vice president of DynCorp International, located in Falls Church, Va. "What was happening with a lot of companies is these people were forgotten."

Consequently, DynCorp, which primarily trains Iraqi police, created its own care program through its own health insurance plan last year to better monitor employees for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The program has psychologists examine returning contractors immediately after they arrive in the United States and six months later. It also has psychologists available via a 24-hour hotline, provides help filing insurance claims and has created an alumni association for its contractors.

"The main thing is we want to be sure our employees are not left to fend for themselves because that's what was happening," Lagana said. "We had employees who were really damaged, had been through harrowing experiences and we had to stand by them."

Brand, the Chicago psychological consultant, helped DynCorp develop the program and still works with the company. He said creating such a program is crucial because disorders like PTSD are treatable as long as a system exists to help contractors identify them.

"But if these people don't know what it is and don't have access to support," he said, "they potentially will have a lifelong problem."

 
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