Having no idea the significance of his delivery, the FedEx driver hurriedly tossed five massive boxes containing everything Anthony Stramiello had possessed in Iraq onto his widow's front porch.
Roberta Stramiello was jolted from the living room sofa by the thuds.
"I'd better go see what's going on out there," she said apprehensively. The last time strangers had been milling about her front porch - on the frigid evening of Dec. 21 - they had been there to tell her that her husband was dead.
It is perhaps revealing that the personal effects of Anthony Stramiello, a 61-year-old construction contractor who had been working in the Iraqi city of Mosul at the time of his death, were returned to the United States with so little ceremony on a recent February morning.
In the nearly two years since the war began in Iraq, at least 232 civilians working on U.S. military and reconstruction contracts have been killed there, many in violent but largely overlooked slayings, according to a report issued to Congress several weeks ago. Because of difficulties in accounting for this virtual army of private contactors in Iraq - many of whom are working in supply, logistics and even combat roles integral to the military's mission - the death toll actually could be far higher.
"The number of civilian contractors who have been killed in Iraq is far greater than any other group over there other than the U.S. military itself," said Peter Singer, an expert on national security and Iraq military contracts at the Brookings Institution. He went on to point out that the number of private contractors in Iraq - estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 - surpasses the number of soldiers there from all the United States' allies combined.
Yet aside from brief moments of attention after high-profile kidnappings, beheadings or bloody ambushes caught on videotape, the public's focus rarely has been on these at-risk civilian workers. Few Americans seem aware these contractors are dying at a rate never before seen in American military history, and the bulk of the public's support and sympathy remains directed toward the families of the more than 1,400 military personnel killed on duty in Iraq.
"Contractors' deaths are not well reported or well documented, and they don't seem to carry nearly the same weight with the public as the deaths of soldiers do," Singer said. "Their stories don't make the front pages - they barely even make Page 28 sometimes."
Shortly after her husband's death - Anthony Stramiello was one of 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers, killed by a suicide bomber in a military mess hall in Mosul - Roberta Stramiello received from a friend a newspaper article describing the deaths of private citizens in Iraq as "death without honors."
"(Contractors) don't come home to funerals with full military honors or flag-draped coffins or bugles playing Taps. Their families don't get letters from the president," she said. "I guess I didn't feel that way personally - for me my husband is gone either way - but I can understand how others might feel the sting of that."
While the list of American military deaths is kept so carefully the public knew exactly when the toll had surpassed the symbolic 1,000-person mark, the number of contractors killed is almost certainly incomplete.
The best method the U.S. Department of Labor has for tracking the number of contractors killed in Iraq is to monitor how many insurance claims are made under the Defense Base Act, a law that requires employees who work on national or international government contracts to be provided insurance, including compensation benefits in the event of their deaths. But some families may not know they are entitled to such benefits and never officially report their family member's death.
"I would caution against thinking that these are exact numbers," said James Mitchell, a spokesman for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the entity that submitted the Jan. 30 report to Congress that highlighted the number of contractor deaths.
Adding to the difficulty of monitoring how many contractors die in Iraq is the fact that there is no organization keeping an official tally of the number of civilians working there. Such an accounting would be difficult because the workers come from dozens of different countries despite the fact they all are employed by companies that have been awarded U.S. military and reconstruction contracts.
A Nepalese woman may be serving food in a military mess hall; a South African man may be working as a private security guard for high-ranking U.S. dignitaries.
Despite their relative anonymity in the nation on whose behalf they are working, these contract workers have become indispensable in the past two years. Contractors built one of the largest American military bases in Kuwait that was used for the troop build-up before the war; they loaded bombs onto attack helicopters; they manned the missile defense batteries onboard U.S. Navy ships. Many of these contractors specialize in operating high-tech weapons systems that the military depends on but that it cannot set up, use or repair on its own.
The U.S. Army War College, recognizing the military's increasing reliance on private workers, issued a report titled, "Contractors on the Battlefield: What Have We Signed Up For?" Its finding was conclusive: that the Army had grown so dependent on civilian contractors it could no longer function in a war zone without extensive technical and logistic help from private firms.
Each contractor who makes the weighty decision to take a job in Iraq, one of the most dangerous places in the world today, has a motivation. Some go for the exorbitant paychecks that can equate to several thousand dollars per day; some go for the adventure; some are running from problems at home. Stramiello, a well-to-do businessman who had always regretted not serving in the Army as a younger man, was planning to work there for a year or two because he thought it was a way to help rebuild that country.
Whatever the disparate individual reasons that propel civilians to Iraq, the contracting jobs there are plentiful, and the explanation for that phenomenon is a multi-layered hodgepodge of military history, modern politics and long-building trends of globalization, privatization and international instability.
Iraq's battlefield actually was shaped most pivotally by one event of the previous century. After the end of the Cold War, militaries around the world began to downsize. But at the same time, the world began to change - and destabilize in some places.
Whole regions of the world were becoming so volatile that their governments were looking to hire professionals to protect them from violent separatists. Globalization was bringing Western companies into these same unsettled parts of the world, and they, too, needed security consultants and protection. And Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism were increasing to the degree that some peacekeepers and humanitarian aid groups soon found themselves in need of private guards.
What developed to fill all these needs is what Singer has dubbed "privatized military firms."
"PMFs are business providers of professional services intricately linked to warfare - in other words, the corporate evolution of the age-old practice of mercenaries," Singer, who is considered the nation's foremost expert on the topic, writes in an upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
The war in Iraq took the use of civilian contractors to a new level, one never seen before in the history of warfare, according to military experts.
In 2002, as it became clear the country was headed toward war, a number of factors all but guaranteed that an unprecedented number of civilian workers would be required to pull it off, Singer said.
The war would be more politically palatable if fewer troops were deemed necessary to deploy, he argued. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, in fact, was pressed into retirement from his job after he predicted that an invasion of Iraq would require "several hundred thousand" troops, not the less than 150,000 the U.S. eventually used.
Even more, it was going to be a high-tech war, using the kinds of weaponry that required the civilian specialists on whom the military had grown so reliant.
When the war began in March 2003, civilian contractors filled any gap between bodies deployed and bodies needed. But outsourcing this work to private workers did not come cheaply - or without risk. Where once a low-paid private first class might be assigned to serve food in the mess hall, now civilian contractors could demand high wages to take those jobs. Where soldiers could be court-martialed for refusing to carry out an order, civilian contractors could refuse to take missions - delivering fuel or ammunition, for example - if they believed they were too dangerous.
"I think there is a significant question as to whether very heavy use of civilian contractors is cost effective," said Scott Silliman, the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. "In addition to that there is the loss of control. But it does accomplish the objective of allowing the personnel in uniform to be assigned to the combat-specific, trigger-pull roles instead of using them for logistics and support."
Silliman, a former Air Force judge advocate who supervised deployment of all Air Force attorneys to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, worries even more about the legal issues that may result from the presence of civilian contractors in Iraq.
"There are two important things to consider," he said. "The vulnerability of these civilians and the accountability of these civilians. If they are hurt or killed there, what legal protections are afforded them? If they commit crimes, can they be prosecuted?"
Two cases may well set precedent on both counts.
In one, the families of four contractors brutally killed in a March 2004 ambush in Fallujah are suing the men's employer, North Carolina-based Blackwater Security Consulting, alleging fraud and wrongful death. The suit, the first to ever be filed against a private military contractor for a wartime death, alleges that the men were not properly armed or trained to go into one of the most restive regions of Iraq.
The second case deals with whether contractors can be punished for crimes committed in foreign war zones.
David Passaro, a CIA contractor, has been charged in federal court with assaulting a prisoner in an Afghan detention facility in 2002. Prosecutors say the prisoner, Abdul Wali, died two days after interrogations and beatings by Passaro, 38.
Passaro is awaiting trial in North Carolina, and his attorneys argued earlier this month that the charges be dropped because the incident occurred outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
Risks aside, the use of civilian contractors in Iraq and elsewhere in the world shows little likihood of changing anytime soon.
Even before the Iraq war, Gary Mauro, Stramiello's younger cousin, had spent years working as a private contractor overseas, largely building new U.S. embassies. Maruo's work in places like Afghanistan and, more recently, Baghdad is what inspired Stramiello to apply to do the same.
Mauro, 43, who has not returned to Iraq since Stramiello's funeral, feels guilty now that his cousin died working a job Mauro helped him secure. Mauro's family - including Roberta Stramiello - has begged him not to return to Baghdad.
"I can't imagine going back to Iraq now," he said. "But I've got a lead on an embassy job in Algeria. I might end up doing that."
Back at the Victorian mansion she and her husband had been painstakingly rehabbing before he went to Iraq, Roberta Stramiello spends little time in the rooms the couple already had finished, instead wandering through the ones that remain torn apart. She constantly points out what still needs to be done. "I've done everything I can in this room," she says sadly, "the rest of the work I need Tony to do."
After the FedEx driver left on that recent morning, Roberta Stramiello made her way outside to begin the painful process of unpacking her dead husband's things. The five black trunks waited on the front porch Anthony Stramiello had built.
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