To many Americans, private contractors in Iraq have become a terrible symbol of a terrible war: from charred bodies hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, to interrogators at Abu Ghraib, to corruption in the reconstruction effort.
Yet tens of thousands of contractors, hired in unprecedented numbers to avoid the use of more US troops in a variety of tasks, toil quietly in vital and dangerous missions. They are a hidden story of this war, uncounted in the military death toll, unremembered with medals of valor, unwelcome at veterans hospitals, and unassisted in their often difficult re entries home.
No US agency tracks deaths of American contractors. The Department of Labor, responsible for recording insurance claims of employees working on US contracts in Iraq, lists 641 contractor deaths, including Americans, Iraqis, and other foreign nationals. At least 6,646 more have filed claims for injuries, according to the data.
The website icasualties.org has used news reports to compile a list of contractors who died in Iraq. The list, which is incomplete, names 140 Americans. Fifty-eight of them were private security guards or security specialists. Twenty-two were American truck drivers killed as they delivered goods, making the job the second-deadliest in Iraq for US citizens, after serving in the military.
The recent airing of a home video made by a truck driver as his convoy was ambushed in Iraq renewed a debate about whether enough has been done to protect contractors in Iraq and provide support after they return.
The video, made in September 2005 and aired by ABC News last month, showed military escort vehicles racing ahead -- out of sight -- after two civilian trucks in the convoy were disabled. Preston Wheeler, the driver who videotaped the scene, watched two of his fellow drivers die in execution-style shootings. He was shot in the leg, but was eventually rescued.
The military has cleared the soldiers who were accompanying the convoy of any wrongdoing, saying they followed procedure and saved lives by driving ahead and shooting behind them to cover the trucks.
But the raw footage of Wheeler, an unarmed Arkansas man, watching his colleagues die struck a nerve for the uncounted legion of truck drivers who have returned with injuries or emotional trauma from their assignments in Iraq.
``I was angry. I was hurt. It brought back a lot of memories of my own convoy that was ambushed by insurgents," said David Meredith, of Leavenworth, Kan. , who drove in a supply convoy for Kellogg Brown & Root for a year starting in September 2004.
Meredith, 38, said that the soldiers he worked with fought hard to protect his convoy, but that it appeared to him from watching Wheeler's video that the ``military did not stay and fight."
Drivers, who are prohibited from carrying weapons, are a daily target, and none more so than those who do the job that Meredith did. He was a ``bobtail driver" responsible for helping other drivers whose trucks had been disabled.
On Aug. 12, 2005, his convoy of 11 civilian trucks and four military tanks was finishing a delivery of prefabricated buildings to a military base when two improvised explosive devices went off, killing a driver whom Meredith identified as Larry Stilwell. The convoy commander ordered Meredith to recover the body amid small-arms fire. ``There was nothing left of the man except his right forearm," Meredith said. ``He had literally been blown to pieces."
Now the image of Stilwell's arm has followed Meredith home to Kansas. He says he can no longer drive a truck -- the only job he has ever known -- because of medication he takes for post-traumatic stress disorder. He has had to hire an attorney to fight for workers' compensation from the insurance purchased on his behalf by Kellogg Brown & Root. Meanwhile, he is facing foreclosure on his home.
``These people are just being neglected," said Meredith's attorney, Gary Pitts, who also represents about 175 other contractors from Iraq and Afghanistan, including Wheeler. ``The military is set up for post-traumatic stress disorder. They have veterans hospitals. They have a system. The civilians don't have any of that."
Kellogg Brown & Root, which has 50,000 contractors working across the Middle East, says it repeatedly warns its workers about the dangers in Iraq.
``In fact, during the training process, we spend most of our time giving recruits all the reasons they should NOT accept this job," the company said in a statement after the Wheeler video aired.
The company said it was up to its insurance company to determine benefits in the case of injury or death. It also said that it has hired licensed counselors to help its workers in Iraq, and organized ``24-hour access to stateside-based counseling and support resources through no-charge telephones, Internet, and e-mail."
However, truck drivers interviewed for this story said they had never heard of those services.
``There is zero support," said Cynthia Morgan of Mississippi, who delivered ice and food in a Kellogg Brown & Root convoy in Iraq in 2004 and later delivered mail for another company in 2005. Morgan said she took the job to support the troops, including her son, who was then a soldier serving in Iraq.
``You get to be an adrenaline junkie," said Morgan, who wrote a book on her experiences.
But her convoy was ambushed six times in her past three months on the job, and now her return home has been marred by repeated nightmares.
Peter Singer, a specialist on private contractors at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said the dangerous roles filled by contractors in Iraq have been deliberately downplayed by the government.
``If you admit to it, if you say, `We have 20,000 to 35,000 contractors running around the country,' then that shows they don't have enough [military] forces there," Singer said.
The perception that contractors are getting rich working in Iraq -- a truck driver can earn $80,000 a year, about four times the salary of an Army private -- has also undermined the public support for them, said Jana Crowder, a Tennessee homemaker who started the website AmericanContractorsinIraq.com.
When a contractor dies, ``a lot of Americans think, well, he got paid to do what he did, to get killed," she said, adding that the discrepancy in pay also creates hostility between the contractors and the troops.
The lack of support for contractors prompted Crowder to start her website when her husband, an engineer, went to Iraq in 2004.
``At one point I was getting, like, 1,000 e-mails a day," she said. ``These people just need someone to talk to, someone who has gone through the same thing."
Steven Thompson, of North Carolina, said he has not been able to drive a flatbed truck since Nov. 6, 2004, the day he went to collect the twisted remains of a convoy that had been blown up in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
He is also troubled by the memory of driving past a lone, burning fuel tanker on the road, only to realize later that its dead driver -- Kevin Rader, of Utah -- had been part of his convoy.
Thompson said he is angry that the military escorts did not do more to protect Rader's truck. He is also angry that he hasn't received help from the US government or Kellogg Brown & Root since he returned.
``The government wants you to forget about us," Thompson said. ``They don't want people to know there's a problem."