Thousands of American civilians are deployed in Iraq — a shadow army that provides logistical support to the troops, but one that puts their lives on the line as well. Most of them seek the mission for patriotism and high pay — often double what they earn at home. But the opportunity is fraught with risk, and many contractors complain they fight a new battle when they come home for medical help and compensation for their war wounds.
As of mid-November — more than 3½ years after Operation Iraqi Freedom began — 7,987 civilians employed by U.S. companies have been injured on the job in Iraq, and 679 have been killed, according to the latest Labor Department statistics.
Retired Army Sgt. Sam Walker is one of the many civilian contractors who suffered injuries due to an insurgent attack and has struggled to get help since coming home. His problems began a few days before Christmas 2004.
Walker had sat down with friends for lunch in a military dining tent in Mosul. As he popped a french fry in his mouth, a suicide bomber was only steps away.
"The next thing you know, there is a bright explosion coming — a bright light coming toward me," Walker says. "I am picked up and thrown over the table at that time, from the explosion."
The blast burned the side of his head, and shrapnel wounded his elbow and knee. Copper wire from the bomb's detonator stuck to his clothes, as did human flesh. Twenty-two people were dead.
One of the victims wore a wedding band. "His arm was laying on a stretcher, but his hand was hanging off," Walker says. "I could see blood running down his finger from his wedding band."
In his nightmares, Walker relives the horrible experience over and over. Bad memories are triggered by odors like the smell of french fries and sights as common as that wedding band.
Walker was in the Mosul mess tent on Dec. 21, 2004, because immediately after leaving the army, he had gone to work for Kellogg Brown and Root, known as KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the main private company hired by the Pentagon to help rebuild Iraq and support the troops. Walker earned a six-figure salary for running a recreational facility for soldiers.
After the bombing, Walker went home to Georgia. He couldn't work, developed a short temper and became socially withdrawn. Walker says KBR just forgot about him.
"They didn't call and say, 'Hey, how ya' doin'? Is everything OK?' Didn't hear anything from them," he says.