HOUSTON - On a cold, overcast day here Friday, nine families came together in a hushed hotel ballroom to receive one of the nation's most prestigious civilian honors.
Executives in dark blue suits shifted uncomfortably as an Army major general in battle fatigues awarded posthumous Defense of Freedom medals to the families' loved ones, all contractors killed while working in Iraq.
But this was no public recognition of sacrifice. The event was held in secret, with guards to keep out the media. The Army even refused to release the names of those it was honoring. The nation's gratitude was delivered behind closed doors.
A thousand miles to the north, a day later, a group of contractors got together on their own dime in a gritty cinder-block VFW hall beside a freeway in Knoxville, Tenn.
This time, there were neither medals nor executives. Instead, there were
sudsy beers, loud music and the camaraderie of men and women who swapped
war stories of public indifference, bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate incompetence.
"This is what we've got. This is our party," said Jana Crowder, the wife of a contractor. She organized the conference, which drew a few dozen people, from as far as South Dakota and Maine.
The contrasting events signal the issues that surround a new and largely invisible kind of pseudo-veteran: the thousands of contractors who have been injured, some fatally, working in Iraq for the U.S. government.
Nearly 125,000 contractors are now at work in Iraq supporting roughly 135,000 troops, according to the most recent military figures. The ratio is far higher than for any previous U.S. conflict, military analysts say.
More than 750 contractors have been killed in Iraq, according to Department of Labor statistics, and almost 8,000 injured. The figures include Americans, Iraqis and other nationalities employed under U.S. government contracts.
Contractors' surviving relatives and wounded contractors have many of the same problems as military members and their families, including searing grief, difficult recoveries and unanswered questions.
But the contractors' status as private employees on a public mission has created an uncertain future, where surviving a bullet in the head does not mean a lifetime of care and where a local bar becomes the closest thing to a veteran's hospital.
All contractors working overseas are supposed to be covered by federal workers' compensation. Under the system, contracting companies purchase insurance to cover workers' injuries, lost wages and, in the case of death, benefits to survivors.
Though the system has worked smoothly in some cases, many contractors have found themselves fighting for medical care and psychological counseling in a civilian healthcare system. Contractors with head wounds and fist-sized holes in their sides have had to fly back to the U.S. on commercial jets for medical care.
For support, they have only a homemade system of sympathy, patched together through websites and e-mail.
Many of the injured are blue-collar Americans, cops and truckers and oil rig hands who saw Iraq as a way to make some money and support the war. They are scattered across the U.S., isolated from those who suffered similar experiences.
Few contractors expect to be treated like returning soldiers. They are quick to acknowledge that they were paid better and could quit when they wanted.
But many served side by side with American troops, lived in the same harsh conditions, and braved mortar fire and roadside bombs without the protection of armored vehicles or weapons. They are frustrated at the difficulty they have encountered in getting help for their troubles.
Some contractors have seen their efforts in Iraq dismissed by friends and neighbors as the product of greed.
"There's no support," said Art Faust, 56, a former trucker for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary now being spun off into a separate company. Faust, of Porter, Texas, has been trying to get psychological treatment after being caught in an ambush in which three other truckers and a soldier were killed. "It's just like someone hit the delete button."
The Houston medal ceremony, jointly sponsored by KBR and the Department of Defense, underscored the meshing of the American military with contractors. KBR holds the single largest contract in Iraq, with 50,000 workers supplying food, fuel and mail to the military. The contractors work alongside soldiers, helping rebuild the country and providing private security guards to diplomats and senior U.S. officials.
All told, the Pentagon has awarded 119 contractors the Defense of Freedom medal, which is considered the civilian equivalent of a Purple Heart. Of those, 95 have gone to KBR employees, according to KBR officials.
The officials declined to provide names or access to the event, citing privacy concerns. The Times was given access by family members who received the award.
Bruce A. Stanski, a KBR executive vice president, told the families that the KBR workers were "true heroes." "We at KBR will never forget those who lost their lives carrying out their critical work. They work side by side with our soldiers, providing them with the bare necessities and the comforts of home."
Maj. Gen. Jerome Johnson, head of the Army's Sustainment Command, which oversees the KBR contract, spoke for nearly half an hour before presenting the families with the medal, created after the Sept. 11 attacks to honor civilians working for the Defense Department.
Johnson, who strode across a low riser decorated with U.S. and KBR flags, compared the KBR workers to soldiers and said their work was vital to the U.S. cause in Iraq. Meanwhile, Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" played.
"Some of your loved ones may not have been wearing a uniform, at least not now, but they were American soldiers," he said, alluding to the many contractors in Iraq who are military veterans.
Afterward, several families said they appreciated the effort by KBR and the military to recognize their loved ones. But they expressed dismay at the lack of communication over the circumstances of the deaths. For many families, the only explanations came from news accounts and recollections of fellow drivers.
Lloyd Dagit's son Keven was killed in the ambush that trapped Faust in September 2005. "KBR has never come and said, 'Here's what happened,' " Dagit said. He continued: "They may say he was part of their family. That means we're part of their family."
Most of the people who gathered the following day in Knoxville were also truckers who had worked for KBR. In the dim light of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1733, they commiserated around low, round tables. Faded red, white and blue streamers hung from the ceiling. Gray-haired Vietnam veterans drank at the bar. A local band blasted Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
Unable to access local veterans' hospitals, some of the men took a class in post-traumatic stress in a small room beside the bar. Several had been diagnosed with the disorder but had been unable to get steady treatment.
Driver Robert Rowe, 46, of Ohio, was shot in the knee in August 2004 while hauling ice for KBR in a convoy near Baghdad. Army medics treated him, and he flew home with his knee oozing blood under thick bandages.
He is still battling KBR's insurer, American International Group Inc., to get workers' compensation. He lives out of his truck and friends' homes, unable to afford his old apartment.
AIG did not respond to a request for comment Sunday, but it has maintained that 90% of claims by Iraq contractors have been paid without dispute."I look at that flag now, and I say, 'What the hell does that represent anymore?' " said Rowe, who served in the military before going to Iraq for KBR.
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