How Iraq Contractors Deal With Trauma

Along with congressional hearings on allegations of recklessness against Blackwater USA security forces in Iraq, questions are also being raised about the way military contractors deal with traumatic stress while overseas and upon returning home.

The House began hearings Tuesday on the military contractor Blackwater following reports about the company's employees in Iraq who were linked to the killings of 11 Iraqi civilians in September and the murder last year of a vice president's bodyguard by a drunken employee.

Critics of Blackwater say the security firm's mistakes in Iraq while protecting U.S. nationals are evidence that the company cannot continue to operate in a shadowy world of lax regulations and little official oversight. But despite the public criticism of Blackwater, its main mission has been an overwhelming success. Not a single American official under Blackwater's protection has been killed, U.S. authorities maintain.

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Before a Congressional panel Tuesday, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince defended his employees' tactics and insisted his company was providing a vital role in Iraq. He said contractors risked their lives everyday to keep U.S. diplomatic personel safe.

"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," said Prince, a former Navy SEAL."We're the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis."

Stress-Related Conditions

In light of the high-profile incidents, possible explanations for the company's actions are emerging, including psychological harm such as post-traumatic stress that led to erratic behavior by some contractors.

"I have never heard of a company offering psychological counseling," a military contractor who works for another company said on the condition of anonymity because of his firm's involvement with the Blackwater investigation.

"Blackwater might have a house shrink, but I'd be surprised if they do. Anyone who has spent more than a few months in Iraq is bound to have mental health issues," he said. "You put a bunch of jittery guys into a situation where everyone wants to bomb or kill Americans and that's a recipe for a really bad situation."

Blackwater declined to comment on the psychological services it provides employees.

Chris Taylor, a former Blackwater vice president now studying at Harvard University's Kennedy School, said the State Department -- with which Blackwater has an exclusive security contract to protect diplomats -- requires the company to screen all its personnel for mental health problems before deployment.

He said employees in the field are regularly reviewed by their peers and leaders and the company had recently hired a former Marine chaplain to provide counseling services. He also said Blackwater employees' insurance covers post-traumatic stress treatments once they return home.

Taylor would not comment on specific Blackwater incidents. He did say, however, that in "combat environments, mental stress effects people in a wide variety of ways. Blackwater has a good safety net for dealing with PTSD type disorders."

Like soldiers, civilian contractors often suffer the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, leaving them prone to depression, thoughts of suicide and erratic behavior. Unlike soldiers, however, who can access resources through the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs, companies typically provide contractors little in the way of counseling on the ground or treatment once they return home.

"There are thousands of guys coming home untreated," said Paul Brand, a psychologist who consults for DynCorp, one of the few companies that offer post-traumatic stress screening and in-country counseling to its employees. "These are private businesses out to make a profit. Most companies make money by not putting systems in place to take care of their employees' mental health… Frankly, it is a travesty that not enough has been done to give contractors the support they need."

Psychologists who treat contractors say the lack of immediate resources for employees in Iraq augment the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and can lead to erratic and dangerous behavior.

Early Treatment Key

"PTSD if treated right away can be staved off," said Robert Brizendine, a psychologist who has treated many contractors returning to California from Iraq.

"The problem is two-fold in many cases. There is the manifestation of a brain injury and secondary emotional problems. Frontal lobe injuries, caused by small head injuries just from getting bounced around the way these guys do regularly can lead to real impulse problems – the sort where people go out and kill people."

Brizendine said he had treated patients who described wanting to kill themselves or other people.

The VA estimates that 34 percent of soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress. A DynCorp study found that 24 percent of contractors reported having symptoms, a number the company's psychologist, Paul Brand, said was probably low due to people too embarrassed to report conditions honestly.

Some 125,000 American and international contractors are working in Iraq.

In its report, Congress said Blackwater charges the government $1,222 each day for a single security contractor, which according to the Associated Press, works out to $445,000 on an annual basis -- more than six times the cost of a U.S. soldier. A Blackwater contractor can make more than $100,000 a year.

Former contractors told that they were sent to Iraq with little more than two weeks training. They said pleas for help in Iraq often went ignored and since returning home they have had a difficult time getting employers and insurance companies to pay for the attention they need.

"There was no one around. There were no psychological services," said Monty Finch, who early in 2006 drove trucks for KBR Halliburton in Anbar province.

'Number Was Up'

Finch said he became increasingly anxious after routinely running into a bomb shelter at night when insurgents would shell his camp, and after the truck in front of him on a convoy was struck by an improvised explosive device.

"Every second of every minute I had the feeling that my number was up. I went to a supervisor and said, 'Things are getting pretty crazy. I can't sleep.' He told me everyone felt the same way and I should get over it."

Finch said he could see the stress taking its toll on other contractors. Some, he said, stopped wearing their body armor.

Filch returned home last October but had to quit his job driving trucks in Texas because he constantly thought there were roadside bombs and snipers lining the highway. He said he has entertained thoughts of suicide and has tried to get himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but neither his insurance nor workman's comp will pay for the treatment, a plight many contractors suffering psychic wounds face.

"These guys have nowhere to go," said Jana Crowder, a Tennessee homemaker whose Web site has become virtually the only resource where contractors can find advice about getting help.

"They've been abandoned by their companies, by the government and by the insurance companies," she said.

Crowder said she routinely gets phone calls from contractors who say they are considering suicide and she must try to talk them out of it and help find places they can get treatment.

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"I've got a guy begging to get hospitalized. He committed himself, but when the hospital realized he didn't have any insurance they sent him home after 24 hours," she said. "Another guy told me he's planning on 'going postal' and killing his co-workers just so someone will realize he's lost it and give him some help."

Alece Davis, a 30-year-old police officer who went to train Iraqi police in April 2006, said the constant stress of living in a war zone led her to become increasingly stressed and ultimately set off a series of seizures.

"Just being over there was traumatic and stressful. Period. Seeing friends not come home, watching IEDs explode in front of my eyes, seeing kids without limbs or kids walking by dead bodies in street. It got to me."

Davis said she left Iraq and through her company, DynCorp, received treatment first in Germany and then followed up with her when she arrived at home.

Unlike most companies, DynCorp has its own experts in place to screen contractors for post-traumatic stress and recommend they seek treatment. But she said she had met with resistance from her insurance company, which has been reluctant to fully fund her treatment.