The Other Victims of Battlefield Stress; Defense Contractors’ Mental Health Neglected
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REDDING, Calif. — Wade Dill does not figure into the toll of war dead. An exterminator, Dill took a job in Iraq for a company contracted to do pest control on military bases. There, he found himself killing disease-carrying flies and rabid dogs, dodging mortars and huddling in bomb shelters.
Dill, a Marine Corps veteran, was a different man when he came back for visits here, his family said: moody, isolated, morose. He screamed at his wife and daughter. His weight dropped. Dark circles haunted his dark brown eyes.
Three weeks after he returned home for good, Dill booked a room in an anonymous three-story motel alongside Interstate 5. There, on July 16, 2006, he shot himself in the head with a 9 mm handgun. He left a suicide note for his wife and a picture for his daughter, then 16. The caption read: "I did exist and I loved you.''
More than three years later, Dill's loved ones are still reeling, their pain compounded by a drawn-out battle with an insurance company over death benefits from the suicide. Barb Dill, 47, nearly lost the family’s home to foreclosure. "We’re circling the drain," she said.
While suicide among soldiers has been a focus of Congress and the public, relatively little attention has been paid to the mental health of tens of thousands of civilian contractors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. When they make the news at all, contractors are usually in the middle of scandal, depicted as cowboys, wastrels or worse.
No agency tracks how many civilian workers have killed themselves after returning from the war zones. A small study in 2007 found that 24 percent of contract employees from DynCorp, a defense contractor, showed signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after returning home. The figure is roughly equivalent to those found in studies of returning soldiers.
If the pattern holds true on a broad scale, thousands of such workers may be suffering from mental trauma, said Paul Brand, the CEO of Mission Critical Psychological Services, a firm that provides counseling to war zone civilians. More than 200,000 civilians work in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the most recent figures.
"There are many people falling through the cracks, and there are few mechanisms in place to support these individuals,'' said Brand, who conducted the study while working at DynCorp."There's a moral obligation that's being overlooked. Can the government really send people to a war zone and neglect their responsibility to attend to their emotional needs after the fact?"
The survivors of civilians who have committed suicide have found themselves confused, frustrated and alone in their grief.
"If I was in the military, I'd at least have someone to talk to," said Melissa Finkenbinder, 42, whose husband, Kert, a mechanic, killed himself after returning from Iraq. "Contractors don't have anything. Their families don't have anything."
Some families of civilian contractors who have committed suicide have tried to battle for help through an outdated government system designed to provide health insurance and death benefits to civilian contractors injured or killed on the job.
Under the system, required by a law known as the Defense Base Act, defense firms must purchase workers’ compensation insurance for their employees in war zones. It is highly specialized and expensive insurance, dominated by the troubled giant AIG and a handful of other companies. The cost of it is paid by taxpayers as part of the contract price.
But the law, which is designed to provide coverage for accidental death and injury, blocks payment of death benefits in the case of almost all suicides. Cases linked to mental incapacity are the lone exception, judges have ruled.