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Civilian contractors: Invisible casualties of Iraq
Scripps Howard News Service


February 23, 2006

WASHINGTON - During his year in Iraq as a top security contractor, Michael Heidingsfield watched his employees perish at the rate of one a month, all victims of roadside bombs set by anti-American insurgents.

Heidingsfield, now safely home in Germantown, Tenn., lost 13 colleagues in just 13 months. They were seven American and six South African security experts recruited by DynCorp International to help train Iraqi police.

"What is even more tragic is that I have been back six weeks and eight more have been killed," said Heidingsfield, 55, who in December ended his tour as contingent commander of the State Department's Police Advisory Mission in Iraq.





His security-personnel losses are among 505 civilian contractors who have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Another 4,744 contractors have been injured, according to insurance claims by 209 companies on file at the Department of Labor.

These are the invisible casualties of the Iraqi occupation.

"The American public is accustomed to measure their losses based on military losses," Heidingsfield said. But the civilian contractors "kind of get lost in the equation."

Neither the Pentagon nor American corporations who hire contractors to support the U.S. military in Iraq will give the identities of the Americans and foreign nationals who have died, citing privacy and security reasons.

"In order to protect the privacy of victims' families, we will not release the names of those employees and subcontractors who have lost their lives," said Melissa Norcross, a spokeswoman for Halliburton.

The unnamed civilians have become a significant part of the cost of the Iraqi occupation, accounting for at least one-sixth of U.S. fatalities suffered. Because the Pentagon has outsourced thousands of jobs, American contractors have become a new kind of Unknown Soldier.

But they are dying in many of the same ways as U.S. troops.

"We were as well-equipped as we could be for our mission," said Heidingsfield. "But it is virtually impossible to defend yourself from improvised explosive devices."

At least DynCorp's security personnel were armed and in a position to try to defend themselves. Heidingsfield warned that other contractors working to rebuild Iraq's crumbling infrastructure in unprotected areas have jobs that are "inviting disaster."

Some former contractors are embittered by their experiences in Iraq.

"I went to Iraq because I was hoping to make a lot of money," said Steven Thompson, who worked six months as a truck driver for Halliburton subsidiary KBR. "On the outside it looked real good, but it doesn't look so good now."

Thompson, 42, survived an improvised-explosive-device (IED) attack on a truck convoy. He said he ended his $1,850-a-week contract six months early when he began suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and could no longer drive a truck.

American-employed civilian contractors are dying at an average of 14 each month. Nearly five times more civilians have died than troop losses suffered by Great Britain, the United States' most important military ally in Southwest Asia.

The only official report on civilian deaths and injuries in Iraq comes from a summary of insurance claims issued by the Department of Labor, although the report is heavily censored. Of the 209 companies that reported deaths or injuries in Iraq, the exact number of casualties was withheld for 197 of these firms. (The government does report a grand total for the dead and injured, however.)

It also is not known how many of the civilian dead are Americans.

"Our statistics capture anyone working for a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Labor Department spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett. "Our database does not track by nationality."

The Labor Department provides imprecise information about exactly how many civilians work in Iraq (the current estimate is 20,000), where they've been assigned to work, their pay, their nationality and even the nature of the work they've been hired to do.

"The lack of numbers - missing on everything from how much we are spending to how many are being killed or wounded - is just stunning for this day and age," said Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research and policy center.

Some of the contracting firms will provide some additional details, however:

Norcross at Halliburton said 82 employees and subcontractors of their KBR subsidiary have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait since March 2003. (The fate of one missing employee remains unknown.) But the company, again for security reasons, will not break down the death toll any more precisely.

DynCorp spokesman Gregory Lagana said his company has lost 26 employees in Iraq since 2003 - 19 in hostile actions and seven from accidents. He said DynCorp has between 1,000 and 2,000 people in Iraq.

A DynCorp employee working in Iraq's international police mission might earn up to $120,631 a year, Lagana said.

Atlanta-based software engineer Michael S. White has identified the names of 261 of the contractor fatalities, mostly by culling newspaper accounts, and has posted their names and companies on his Web site (

"We get our information from the Internet, searching for articles daily. We have received information on contractor deaths from family members, but never from the companies that employ the contractors," White said. "We have also received confirmation and corrections from servicemen in Iraq, which is very helpful."

White's online database provides some hints about the demographics of contractor fatalities. Nearly half are U.S. citizens. The most dangerous occupations seem to be security personnel, accounting for 84 fatalities, and truck drivers, who have suffered 57 deaths.

The most common causes of death - according to White's data - are from IEDs, accounting for 57. Another 51 perished in insurgent attacks on convoys, 29 in executions carrying out by insurgents, 25 from small-arms fire and 22 by suicide bombers.

White, who opposes U.S. military operations in Iraq, said he began the Internet site shortly after President Bush flew to the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to declare an end to military operations.

"I started the Web site from my home computer right after 'mission accomplished' was announced," White said. "I did not feel the number of fatalities and injuries were being sufficiently publicized."

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