Military contractors play a hidden role in US wars
Many people who fought and died on behalf of the U.S. during 20 years of war in Afghanistan were actually contractors, not U.S. troops. It’s part of a change in the way America fights wars with lasting consequences.
Andy Cootes, who worked as a contractor in Afghanistan, is a Navy veteran though he had left the military more than a decade before he went to Afghanistan. He thought about re-enlisting after Sept. 11, 2001, but he had just entered the police academy. After working as a narcotics dog handler for a police department in Texas, he was hired in 2008 by a private contractor to work with bomb sniffing dogs in Afghanistan. In less than a month, and almost no training, Cootes was in the field with special forces.
“You become a lot less concerned with your own safety, than you do the guys behind because they're putting their life in your hand,” Cootes said. “Our rotation typically we'd be there for 6 months, and then we get to come home for like 23 days, and then we go back and then you go back for 6 more months."
The number of roadside bombs skyrocketed. Cootes remained in Afghanistan for nearly eight years, until his injuries to his back and hand started to pile up. His wife convinced him it was time to come home.
“When you know there's nobody out there that's seen what you've seen, and you can’t go anywhere to people who have been through and seeing that you feel real isolated and lonely and again that's why a lot of contractors commit suicide, but it doesn't make the news,” he said.
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Many people who fought and died on behalf of the us during 20 years of war in Afghanistan were actually contractors, not us troops, K PBS, military reporter. Steve Walsh says it's part of a change in the way America fights its wars with lasting consequences,
Speaker 2: (00:19)
You become a lot less concerned with your own safety. Then you do the guys behind you because they're putting, they're putting their life. In
Speaker 3: (00:26)
Your hand. Andy Kutz is a veteran, but not in Afghanistan. He served in the Navy in the 1990s, but after working as a narcotics dog handler for a police department in Texas, he was hired in 2008 by a private contract to work with bomb sniffing dogs in Afghanistan in less than a month Kutz was in the field with special forces.
Speaker 2: (00:47)
Our, our rotation typically was we we'd be there for six months and then we'd get to come home for like 23 days. And then
Speaker 3: (00:54)
We'd go back as the number of roadside bombs skyrocketed. He stayed nearly eight years until his injuries piled up and his I've convinced him. It was time to come home. But
Speaker 2: (01:04)
When you know, there's nobody out there that's seen what you've seen and you can't go anywhere to people who have been through and seen that you feel real isolated and, and lonely. And again, that's why a lot of contractors commit suicide, but it doesn't make the news.
Speaker 3: (01:19)
No. A Coburn is an anthropologist that Ben college, he spent time in Afghanistan trying to get a handle on the number of contractors hired by the us,
Speaker 4: (01:28)
Frankly, the political cost of a contractor being killed is, is much less. It oftentimes doesn't even get reported on. And you can see it simply in the headlines after these attacks where it will say three troops killed. And it won't even mention the fact that they were with 12 contractors at the time
Speaker 3: (01:42)
Brown university found about 7,000 military members died in all post nine 11 conflicts, but nearly 8,000 contractors died. Coburn says private contracts hide the true cost of war
Speaker 4: (01:56)
Hiring companies to do, uh, the work that the military did historically, whether it's building the bases, whether it's still delivering
Speaker 3: (02:03)
Fuel. No one has a complete list of who was hired. Some were Americans, many were Afghans, a large number were from third countries like Nepal in the Philippines. A few were highly paid, but most earned a tiny fraction of the trillion dollars. The us spent in Afghanistan.
Speaker 4: (02:19)
One thing that every one of the last four administrations has agreed upon entirely. It's the one constant in our strategies in the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And that is the ratio of contractors to troops have steadily increased over the last 20 years. I mean, I'm
Speaker 5: (02:37)
Not psychologists, but, but to be honest, I was able to see the anger in their face
Speaker 3: (02:43)
Part of, but here's Soft's job was to go to villages with us forces when someone was killed by mistake, he remembers an elderly man shot by an American sniper. The man was holding up what turned out to be a flashlight.
Speaker 5: (02:56)
They, they shot them down. So, and the next day we were trying to cover that, uh, bad incident. And we had a meeting with them and explain everything and spent like at least two to three hours,
Speaker 3: (03:13)
SA worked as an interpreter for nearly seven years before leaving Afghanistan in 2014, he's now an American citizen living outside of Washington, DC though Afghans were paid far less. They were expected to take on some of the most dangerous missions when contractors get hurt. Instead of military doctors and VA benefits, companies are using a version of workman's compensation known as the defense base act. Jeffrey winter is an attorney in San Diego who handles these cases. They start to
Speaker 5: (03:43)
Recognize they have flashbacks. They have things that startle them and a get to the point where they, the family says, look, you either need to go see somebody or we're leaving. It just gets to be
Speaker 3: (03:54)
That bad lawsuits can drag on for years, the dog handler Andy Kutz is back home in Texas. He's paying for his own PTSD treatment after receiving a settlement. I don't think
Speaker 2: (04:04)
Of myself as just the civilian out there with those guys. It's just, when you get outside that little bubble, that me or anybody else who is in my position becomes just vapor. You know, they, they just kind of disappear and we have to deal with it ourselves,
Speaker 3: (04:19)
Not at home with fellow combat veterans and not able to move on after years of war,
Speaker 1: (04:27)
Joining me as KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve. Welcome.
Speaker 3: (04:33)
Speaker 1: (04:34)
Your report makes the point that there's no easy way to find out how many contractors were used in the Iraq in Afghan wars, but why did the us start using contractors in the first place weren't there enough us military personnel?
Speaker 3: (04:49)
Well, I, I guess one of the arguments is that it was cheaper, but there's not a lot of evidence that, that was true. We spent a couple trillion dollars in Afghanistan. Much of that money went to us. Contractors, you know, when it comes through the workers, the liability is a little less. So maybe there's a savings there. The real inequity exists, uh, between contractors, disability, compensation, insurance versus, uh, military benefits, contractors, death benefits are also much less than what it would be for us troops. The real benefits seems to be optics though. We heard a lot, the last 5,000 troops that were in Afghanistan, but very little about the 20,000 contractors who were still on the ground. You know, this process kind of lowers the footprint for us troops. And that may be the, the biggest benefit.
Speaker 1: (05:37)
Now, how much did political ideology play into the decision to use so many contractors? I remember this was the era when many aspects of government were being privatized,
Speaker 3: (05:48)
You know, true enough. So during that same time, we saw a lot of privatization in all aspects of government. This, uh, could be seen as the Pentagon getting on board with the trend. I mean, we've seen, uh, conservative elements in Congress pushing the VA to send more veterans to private doctors outside the system. So it certainly, isn't just isolated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan though, from, you know, Bush to Obama, there were strict controls on the number of troops being allowed into these countries, but there were no caps whatsoever on the number of contractors. So they could actually create a surge without actually increasing the number of us forces in the country.
Speaker 1: (06:26)
Okay. So besides interpreters and dog handlers, what kinds of jobs did contractors do?
Speaker 3: (06:33)
Oh, there were a whole host of jobs. A lot of them logistics, the things that at quarter masters used to do, you know, supplying troops and providing fuel equipment and housing. There were bases set up that looked like us bases, but they were actually run by private contractors. Uh, they were running reconstruction projects. They, uh, provided most of the tech support for aircraft provided to the Afghans. There were all sorts of co questions about what would happen to the Afghan air force. Once the us military pulled out when most of the maintenance was being done by us contractors, of course, they, uh, they also did pull security, uh, a company by the name of Blackwater founded by a, a Navy seal. As the most notorious, they eventually became academy. They had a number of high profile incidents that really gave contract as a, a bad name.
Speaker 1: (07:22)
Now the us government has a commitment to help injured military personnel for the rest of their lives. And of course there are also other benefits for veterans in housing education, et cetera. In contrast how comprehensive is the version of workman's comp that cover contractors.
Speaker 3: (07:40)
So the BA's benefit system has its problems, but it's designed to help veterans. There are assumptions that veterans are allowed certain benefits tied to their service. Now, if you're a contractor, you can, you can work through the defense base act, which, uh, basically operates through the department of labor. There are administrative law, just, it does look very much like workman's comp, which is, you know, adversarial, Andy Coots. Um, the dog handler told me that, you know, he would go to depositions with the opposing attorneys and they had hired an investigator to follow him around. They had pictures of him playing with his son in the park, I guess, as evidence that he had had certain, you know, a certain range of motion, eventually he became so frustrated. He eventually settled not wanting this case to, to drag out any longer. So it's, it's much different from, from the VA process that we know
Speaker 1: (08:32)
What prompted your report on military contractors. Steve, was it the problems many interpreters faced in getting out of Afghanistan earlier this year? Yeah,
Speaker 3: (08:42)
I think that's part of it. I mean, there has, there have been a lot of discussion of trying to get to Afghan contractors who worked with the us out of Afghanistan. I'm, I'm starting to think this will be seen as sort of the signature cause of this war, much like the P O w M I a issue became so prominent after Vietnam, but interpreters were really only one kind of contractor. What really struck me was the figures by brown university that showed that more than 7,000 us troops died after nine 11, but more than 8,000 contractors died, there are completely overlooked. Many were Americans. They often were not paid enormous sums and many stayed on the job for years. They suffered the same wounds of war as, as us troops, but they existed in this gray area. No one really talks about them. If they weren't in the military themselves, they aren't even considered veterans, even though of them have more combat experience than the average us troop. You know, the reputation did become tainted by black water, but many worked, uh, directly with us troops and weren't ever associated with any atrocities, but they're just sort of out there on their own.
Speaker 1: (09:51)
Did you get any sense of regret in the people you spoke with about taking the role of military contractor in a battle zone?
Speaker 3: (09:59)
Well, you know, oddly enough, no, no. I mean, Andy Kutz who still suffers from PTSD, he, he still talks about how proud he was of his service and being able to work alongside us military. I talked to several other contractors who felt very much the same. They're, they're very proud of their service, even though no one really acknowledges that they served.
Speaker 1: (10:19)
I've been speaking with K PBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve, thank you.
Speaker 3: (10:25)
Speaker 6: (10:40)
Noah Coburn, an anthropologist at Bennington College, spent time in Afghanistan trying to get a handle on the number of contractors hired by the U.S.
“Frankly, the political cost of a contractor being killed is much less,” he said. “Often times it doesn't even get reported on. You can see it simply in the headlines after these attacks, where it will say. Three troops killed and it won't even mention the fact that they were with 12 contractors at the time.”
As part of its Costs of War project, the Watson Institute at Brown University found about 7,000 members of the military died in all post-Sept. 11 conflicts, but nearly 8,000 contractors died. Coburn says private contracts hide the true cost of war.
“Hiring companies to do the work that the military did historically whether it's building the basis or delivering fuel,” he said.
The effort to bring former Afghan contractors to the U.S. is a small part of a larger issue. No one has a complete list of who was hired over the past two decades. Some were Americans — many were Afghans. A large number were from third countries like Nepal and the Philippines. They would often spend years away from their families, working alongside the Americans. A few people were highly paid but most earned a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars the U.S. spent in Afghanistan, Coburn said.
“It's the one thing that every one of the last four administrations, has agreed upon entirely,” he said. “It's the one constant in our strategies in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's that is the ratio of contractors to troops have steadily increased over the last 20 years.”
Part of Baheer Safi’s job was to go to villages with U.S. forces when someone was killed by mistake.
“I’m not a psychologist, but I was able to see the anger in their face,” he said.
He remembers an elderly man shot by an American sniper. The man was holding up what turned out to be a flashlight.
“They shot them down. The next day we were trying to cover that bad incident. And we had a meeting with them, explain everything to them, take at least two to three hours,” he said.
He worked as an interpreter for nearly seven years before leaving Afghanistan in 2014. Originally, he came to San Diego. He’s now an American citizen, living outside of Washington D.C. Though Afghans were paid far less, they were expected to take on some of the most dangerous missions.
When contractors get hurt, instead of military doctors and Veterans Affairs benefits, companies use a version of workman's compensation known as the Defense Base Act.
Jeffery Winter is an attorney in San Diego, who handles these cases. They sue the U.S. Department of Labor. The way it works, as an attorney, Winter pays for his clients to see doctors and receive tests so he can prove their case before an administrative law judge. If they win, he’s reimbursed as part of the statute. It takes some of his clients years to even consider filing a claim.
“They start to recognize they have flashbacks, they have things that startle them," Winter said. "And it gets to the point where the family says '`look you either need to go see somebody or we're leaving.’ It just gets to be that bad.”
Lawsuits can also drag on for years.
Cootes, the dog handler, is back home in Texas. He’s paying for his own PTSD treatment after receiving a settlement.
“I don't think of myself as just the civilian out there with those guys,” he said. “It's just when you get outside that little bubble that me or anybody else who was in my position becomes just a vapor. You know, they just kind of disappear, and we have to deal with it ourselves.”
Not at home with fellow combat veterans and not able to really move on from years of war.