Jan. 28, 2007, 12:41AM
Contractor deaths in Iraq nearing 800
Toll has surged in past months, but civilians still line up for the jobs
By DAVID IVANOVICH and BRETT CLANTON
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Laboring in a war with no discernible front line, more than 770 civilian
contractors have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began in March
Statistics kept by the Labor Department indicate fatalities among
civilian contractors working for American firms escalated rapidly late
last year, with at least 301 dying in Iraq in 2006 — including 124 in
the final three months.
U.S. military deaths totaled 818 during the year, the Defense Department
Despite the danger, job seekers continue to flood contractors' offices
Some 165,000 prospective employees contacted Houston-based Halliburton
Co.'s KBR last year about job opportunities in Iraq, Kuwait and
Afghanistan, company officials said. KBR now has half a million résumés
And the recent troop "surge" announced by President Bush has prompted
KBR to increase its hiring, company Chief Executive Officer Bill Utt
Among the job seekers crowding into a recent KBR orientation program at
Greenspoint Mall, many of the job seekers crowding into a recent KBR
orientation program at Greenspoint Mall were fatalistic about the risks.
"When it comes your time, it comes your time," said Robert Hulion, 59,
of Crestview, Fla., before being deployed to Iraq to work as a
"I've been through Vietnam, and I've been to New York City. But what I
call dangerous is Mardi Gras in New Orleans," Hulion joked.
Hulion has joined what the Pentagon estimates to be 100,000 civilians
working for U.S.-based contractors in Iraq.
Supplementing the 130,000 American troops serving in the country, these
civilians provide a wide variety of functions, including serving up chow
and interrogating prisoners.
The 100,000 figure is an estimate because, nearly four years into the
war, the Pentagon is just now conducting its first survey to determine
how many civilian contractors are working in Iraq.
And Pentagon officials, citing military regulations, don't track
Contract worth billions
Halliburton's KBR is the largest military contractor operating in Iraq,
with more than 50,000 employees and subcontractors working there, as
well as in Kuwait and Afghanistan.
Working under a multibillion-dollar contract with the Army, KBR crews
drive trucks, wash clothes, deliver mail and provide a host of other
support services for U.S. troops.
KBR's workers are a critical component of the Pentagon's privatization
strategy, enabling the military to reduce the number of troops needed in
the country by turning over noncombat functions to civilians.
The idea behind the privatization plan was to keep these noncombatants
away from the fighting. But that has proved impossible in
"The whole place is a front line," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at
the Washington-based Brookings Institution and author of Corporate
Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.
The contractor death toll rose last week when five Americans working for
Blackwater USA were killed in Baghdad after their helicopter was shot
down by insurgents. The contractors were rushing to help a U.S. Embassy
convoy that had come under attack.
Civilian contractors killed in Iraq are often eligible — and many have
received — the defense secretary's Medal for the Defense of Freedom, the
so-called Purple Heart for civilians working on behalf of the military.
But their names are left off the Pentagon's Iraq casualty rolls.
If they were counted, the U.S. military's official casualty figures —
3,063 as of Friday — would be 25 percent higher.
"Since Day 1, the administration has been very, very comfortable
artificially deflating the human cost of our effort in Iraq," said
Steven Schooner, co-director of the government-procurement law program
at George Washington University Law School.
The Pentagon's failure to report contractor deaths angers some family
members whose loved ones died working in Iraq.
"There are so many of them who have been killed, and they're not
acknowledged," noted Hollie Hulett, whose husband, Stephen, a truck
driver, was killed when his convoy was ambushed in April 2004. "They're
swept under the rug."
The 770 tally — representing fatalities (including deaths by natural
causes) between March 2003 and Dec. 31, 2006 — was tabulated by the
Labor Department's Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation.
Last year's contractor fatalities represent 39 percent of the deaths
reported by the Labor Department.
Besides those killed, another 7,761 civilian contractors had been
injured in Iraq as of Dec. 31, the Labor Department said.
The Labor Department has these numbers because it tracks workers'
compensation claims by injured workers or families of slain contractors
under the federal Defense Base Act.
"Using employee time lost is a kind of a weird way to track casualties,"
Singer noted. "But it's part of the bizarre nature of this industry and
the way it's been used in Iraq."
Still, the Labor Department figures don't tell the full story.
KBR, for instance, says 95 of its employees and subcontractors have been
killed in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Company officials declined to
say exactly how many have died in Iraq alone.
The Labor Department provided the Houston Chronicle a breakdown of
fatalities and injuries by contractor, through the end of December, but
this list does not identify any deaths as KBR fatalities.
The database has many — often intentional — holes. The Labor Department,
for instance, won't specify an employer if that contractor has fewer
than seven cases in a particular category, a department spokesman said
Aside from the deaths, KBR officials say 430 workers and subcontractors
had been injured because of hostile action in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
In terms of fatalities, however, KBR reported a decline in 2006. The
company and its subcontractors suffered 17 fatalities last year,
compared with 41 in 2004.
KBR officials would not discuss why their fatalities dropped last year.
"To avoid jeopardizing the safety and security of our employees and
subcontractors, we will not detail the specific measures that are
currently in place," company spokeswoman Melissa Norcross said.
The Labor Department records indicate L-3 Services Group, which provides
translators and interpreters for the Army, had suffered the worst
casualties in Iraq: 241 workers killed by the end of 2006, including 32
in the last three months of the year.
The actual number of L-3 Services Group fatalities in Iraq, noted Rick
Kiernan, the company's vice president for strategic communications, was
255 as of Dec. 31 and 261 as of Friday.
Many of those victims were Iraqis, known to be working with Americans
and then assassinated while off duty, Kiernan said.
The spate of contractor deaths suffered by L-3 Services during the
fourth quarter, Kiernan said, could reflect the timing of the Muslim
holy month of Ramadan, when many of the workers returned home for the
The U.S. arm of Britain's ArmorGroup International, a private security
firm, has seen 22 workers die in Iraq, the Labor records show.
Company spokesman Patrick Toyne Sewell declined to confirm those
figures, noting: "'If you focus on the numbers, you start to consider
people as numbers, rather than as much-missed friends or colleagues."
"We aim to prevent any (casualties) at all," Toyne Sewell said.
In their discussions about Iraq, military experts had been assuming
contractor casualties would account for, perhaps, 10 percent of the
total U.S.-related fatalities.
If the Labor Department figures are correct, contractors accounted for
27 percent of all U.S.-related fatalities last year.
"The question is: Is this better data, or is the rate going up at a
frightening pace?" Schooner said.
Of the 770 victims, only 144 have been certified as having died as a
direct result of enemy action, a Labor Department spokesman said.
Why that figure would be so low — fewer than one in five fatalities — is
not completely clear. But L-3 Services' Kiernan noted that the
assassinations of off-duty workers, for example, would not be counted as
How many of these civilian-contractor casualties were American citizens
is unknown. Labor officials say they cannot provide a breakdown by
Splitting the contract
Despite the new hiring, KBR's activity in Iraq has declined since a peak
set back in 2004, although the company still performed $4.8 billion
worth of work last year, including $1.2 billion in the fourth quarter,
the company's figures show.
The Army has decided to split up KBR's huge logistics contract among
three companies. But KBR still has plenty of work to do.
In fact, KBR has 1,000 positions to fill in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The applicants funnel through an old Montgomery Ward store at
Greenspoint. KBR processes as many as 900 job applicants a week.
In 22 training sessions, instructors cover everything from the dangerous
spiders workers might encounter in the Middle East to how to behave if
For Trish Anderson of West Palm Beach, Fla., a one-year tour with KBR
represents a way to receive some financial freedom.
"I want to buy a few more pieces of property, and I have a daughter
who's ... going to college," Anderson said.
Like many applicants, Anderson also sees a bigger mission — "to be able
to give the gift of freedom."
This 38-year-old former Marine Corps staffer and a veteran of both the
Persian Gulf War and the Iraq war says she is not going into this blindly.
"I know what the dangers and the stress and the risks are," she said.
"Honestly, I don't think it's getting worse. I think it's getting better."
Still, all the uncertainty about the actual level of danger and
fatalities appalls critics.
"Should we have to estimate this matter, or should we know it as fact?"
asked T. Scott Allen, a Houston attorney representing the Hulett family
as well as other families of slain KBR workers and injured employees in
a lawsuit against the company.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., has introduced legislation that would force
the administration to report to Congress about civilian casualties.
"I think people have lost patience with this war without calculating in
the other 770 people who have died.
"Imagine," Schakowsky said, what the public reaction would be if the
reported casualty figures "were now closer to 4,000 people who have died?"
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