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.
By the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1968, tens of thousands of American civilians were backing our efforts on the battlefield. My tiny platoon outpost overlooking Khe Sanh had a half-dozen American civilians manning sophisticated communications and detection equipment. At Con Thien, our infantry battalion was supported by U.S. civilian "tech reps" who maintained and operated fire control radars, ran generators and repaired everything from sensors to heavy equipment. One of the most famous photographs of the Vietnam War's ignominious end was an American civilian contractor's UH-1 "Huey" helicopter evacuating desperate Vietnamese refugees from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy.
Today's globe-spanning war on terror -- and a much smaller U.S. military to fight it -- place even greater burdens on civilian contractors. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, more than 350 U.S. companies and nearly 100,000 American civilians are directly engaged in supporting U.S. and coalition efforts. In Iraq, civilian contractors man and protect more than 900 convoys a month delivering food, water, clothing, fuel, weapons, ammunition and equipment to the new Iraqi police and army. Nearly all major maintenance is performed by civilian contractors, including that for U.S. forces.
On each of my eight trips to Iraq reporting on U.S. combat units for FOX News, I have eaten food prepared by these civilian contractors, bathed in and drank the water they supplied, ridden in vehicles they had armored and communicated with equipment they had installed. In northern Iraq, I documented American contractors destroying millions of tons of Saddam's ordnance so that it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. In Fallujah I saw the bridge where the mutilated bodies of four civilian contractors were hung by Al Qaeda in March 2004. And on every trip I've seen well-armed civilians from private security companies -- called PSCs -- protecting diplomats, sensitive installations, oil pipelines, news bureaus, Iraqi government officials and even senior U.S. military officers.
Though Gen. David Petraeus testified at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 23 that he was "secured by contract security in my last tour there," and described the PSCs as essential to his strategy for victory, he appears to have changed his mind. Last week the Maliki government issued regulations -- enforced by the U.S. military -- stripping weapons from all civilian contractors unless they have a new permit issued by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). The Catch-22 in all of this is that the MOI has yet to issue any new permits.
Lawrence T. Peter, director of the Private Security Association of Iraq, says that the new regulation "disarms virtually all PSC personnel not working directly for the U.S. government and prevents any coalition civilian traveling through Baghdad from legally carrying a weapon." He added, "we now have American troops disarming American civilians. It just got a whole lot more dangerous to be a reporter, a reconstruction worker or a coalition diplomat in Iraq. The terrorists must love this."
Road kill, anyone?