WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On March 27 the solons of the U.S. Senate voted to assure defeat in Iraq by setting a "date certain" -- one year from now -- for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. As the 50-48 vote was being tallied, 15 British sailors and Royal Marines were being held hostage somewhere in Iran. While the barons of bombast were rushing to the microphones to crow about repudiating this president's failed strategy, U.S. aircraft from two carrier battle groups were screaming into the air over the Persian Gulf. And in a little-noticed footnote that same afternoon, the newswires from Baghdad reported that "a U.S. soldier and a civilian contractor had been killed inside the 'Green Zone' in Baghdad."
In keeping with tradition, the American soldier's next of kin will be notified by his service, his body will be escorted home on an "Angel Flight" and at his funeral, a military honor guard will solemnly present his family with a carefully folded American flag and a Purple Heart Medal on which the profile of George Washington appears. The U.S. civilian contractor, killed by the same "indirect fire" as the U.S. soldier, will be accorded none of these courtesies. She is simply a statistic: the 161st American civilian contractor killed in Iraq since 2003. When I called a friend in Iraq to ask about the circumstances, I was told, "Who cares about the civilian? We're just road kill."
The disparity in how these two American casualties are treated in death may be stark -- but it's nothing new. Civilian contractors have served beside -- and been treated differently than -- the U.S. military since the American Revolution. From 1775 when he arrived in Boston to assume command of the Continental Army, Washington depended on civilian contractors to provide food, weapons, ammunition, transport, armories, engineering, construction, clothing and medical assistance for his troops. Though many of these civilians shared the same hardships and privations as the troops they supported, they were more often criticized than honored by our government.
Modern warfare has made civilian contractors even more essential to our military -- and placed them at higher risk. Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, nearly 100 American civilian construction contractors were killed and wounded standing shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. Marines and sailors defending Wake Island. When the tiny garrison was overwhelmed on Dec. 23, 1941, more than 1,000 contractors became prisoners of the Rising Sun and scores were subsequently worked to death and massacred by their captors. None of those who died received so much as a Purple Heart.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.