What Do We Owe Wounded War Contractors?

Stephen DeAngelis has some interesting reflections on the large number of civilian contractors, both American and foreign national, performing support services for the U.S. military that were not so long ago performed by enlisted soldiers. While most of us focus on the relative unaccountability of the contractors as compared with uniformed personnel, there’s another difference: The lack of benefits.

He cites a recent John Broder piece.

The consequences of the war will be lasting for many of them and their families, ordeals that are largely invisible to most Americans. And they will be costly. The most grievously injured, like Mrs. Khan, are initially treated at military hospitals in Iraq and Europe, then sent home and left to the mercies of their employer’s insurance carrier. The less critically hurt, and those with psychic wounds, must fend for themselves to get care.

Nobody makes the private workers go to Iraq or forces them to stay, of course; the high salaries some collect lead critics to dismiss them as mercenaries and their employers as profiteers. But many more contractors, like Mrs. Khan, earn relatively modest wages — far less than the $100,000 the Army says an enlisted soldier costs annually in pay, benefits and training — and some foreign workers who perform some of the most dangerous tasks are paid just dollars a day. After a decade of downsizing and outsourcing, the American military cannot wage war without them.

[…]

Some Americans shrug about the casualties among contractors, saying they made their money and they took their chances. Others, though, think the nation owes them something more. “We should honor their sacrifices and those of their families,” said Frank Camm, a Rand Corporation economist who has studied contracting and is the son of a retired Army lieutenant general. “They’re not in uniform, and there is something special about being in uniform. But they deserve a hell of a lot more than we’re giving them.”

I’m not so sure. People who undertake risky work are owed what they were promised when they signed on. It’s unclear why they should get “a hell of a lot more.”

DeAngelis argues that, “If the U.S. is going to rely on contractors for both front and back half activities, then a permanent solution to long-term healthcare for those injured and just compensation to the families of those killed should be put in place.” Only, it seems to me, if people aren’t signing up in droves to take the jobs.

It’s true that we provide for the long-term disability of American soldiers wounded in combat. But that was part of our contract with them. Further, we’re paying them far less on the front end than we do contractors at comparable skill levels. We pay cooks, truck drivers, laundry washers, and the like going into war zone far, far more than they’d ordinarily make precisely because of the added danger they face.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    We pay cooks, truck drivers, laundry washers, and the like going into war zone far, far more than they’d ordinarily make precisely because of the added danger they face.

    Yes. I saw the NY Times story when it came out and wondered what the hell these people thought they were getting into?!?! Nobody in their right mind would expect a high-paid job in a war zone would be like going to Disneyland.

    Of course, many people who sign on to these jobs were in pretty dismal economic straits to begin with, but the whole “honor their sacrifice” line is complete BS.

  2. markm says:

    Sorry, but the contractors should know going in that they are well payed hired guns and if health care wasn’t part of the initial deal then you should read the fine print.

    This is like a person joining the military only to want out if they have to go to war.

  3. Under other circumstances, I’d suggest they use some of their earnings to purchase additional short term and long term disability coverage, but that may prove problematic because of the nature of their work. Perhaps a viable solution would be for our government to offer, subsidize or underwrite disability coverage for people performing a service for the government in a hazardous area at a rate comparable to a job in a less hazardous situation.

    In one sense this is somewhat like the catastrophic health care insurance that is broadly needed across the whole population, only the likelihood of these folks needing it is somewhat higher than the general population.

  4. JKB says:

    I’m not sure I see the problem. Federal Acquisition Regulations require a contractor to obtain Workers Compensation insurance. There are laws (Defense Base Act and War Hazards Act Compensation Act) that apply and address injury liability oversees and in war zones and insurance requirements. Yet, the implication is that it is wrong that an individual must process claims through their employer’s insurer like everyone else who is injured on the job. As far as I know, federal civilian employees don’t get injury and disability compensation outside the federal worker’s compensation program.

    Soldiers are provided medical care to maintain their ability to fight. The availability of care also enhances their willingness to fight. Soldiers are not permitted to decide that they don’t want to risk being injured for going on patrol or charging the enemy. In WWI, soldiers that refused to get climb out of the trench found themselves against a wall. While courts martial generally don’t occur in a farm house a mile or so behind the front lines anymore, the obligation to obey all lawful orders remains the same. Contrast this with a contractor who may quit his job at will, although perhaps at some financial penalty for failure to complete his contract.

    I suppose rather then use contractors, some would prefer we impose a draft and have a 18-year old kid who’d rather be surfing working the mess hall under penalty of imprisonment or the blight of a less than honorable discharge if he chose to not be there?

  5. The vast majority of these folks are third party nationals. My suspicion is that opening the Federal benefits faucet for the perceived needy Americans would in fact create a benefit for all the contractors and their employees.

  6. tom p says:

    I wonder… How many of those saying “You signed up for it, now deal with it.” actually have a risk of death or dismemberment as their constant companions on the job? I am a union carpenter and have sustained many injuries over the years (last time I counted, I still have all my parts). I know one guy who was killed and several others who have to live with disabling injuries. Maybe we should do away with OSHA and Workmens Comp because “It’s part of the job”? Or, as one other said, let’s reinstitute the draft… starting with the gutless weasels who don’t want to go themselves or even pay for it.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Maybe we should do away with OSHA and Workmens Comp because “It’s part of the job”?

    We used to do just that. We decided that it was worth changing as a society. But WC is paid for by employers. The bottom line, though, is we are paying big wages to folks and they’re signing up in droves. They should negotiate their conditions of employment before doing so.

  8. DC Loser says:

    Contrast this post with this.

    As a civilian that can be deployed at a moment’s notice, this doesn’t give me confidence in the system. I hope this was a case of ironing the bugs out, or it could be just a problem in the Army’s case.

  9. James Joyner says:

    As a civilian that can be deployed at a moment’s notice, this doesn’t give me confidence in the system. I hope this was a case of ironing the bugs out, or it could be just a problem in the Army’s case.

    The decision some time back to make DoD civilians part of the “Total Force” and treat them as deployable assets always struck me as idiotic. That we don’t treat them that way when they’re injured, though, is simply brain dead. Rather obviously, government employees ordered to war should be treated in the same manner as soldiers.