By Kerry Patton
This week we learned about continuing atrocities unfolding in Afghanistan as more U.S. troops have been killed. These brave warriors died fighting on behalf of our great nation.
Unfortunately, many former service members have also either died or have been severely wounded this week, but no one is speaking about them.
According to a 2012 White House report, approximately 18 veterans take their own lives each day. That’s more each year than those actually killed in combat. And while an estimated 18 service members physically take their lives each day, many still living have been mentally killed—they are no longer mentally functional. Those numbers constitute veterans, former uniformed service members. Do not think their civilian counterparts lack similar issues.
Last week, a friend, a very close friend, had emailed me. I never responded simply because I was “too busy” traveling abroad then returning to travel stateside. The email seemed harmless and didn’t appear time sensitive but I was wrong—it was time sensitive.
My friend is a retired Marine and a high ranking one at that. He was working as a contractor in Afghanistan. His contract was up and he was looking for other gigs. Unfortunately, that’s probably not what he was really looking for.
You see, it’s difficult being surrounded by such patriotic warriors like my Marine buddy and understand what they are really saying at times. He, like most warriors, has a “Type A” personality. We will never admit when we are broken. I didn’t come to grips with any of my physical injuries until months after a helicopter crash.
I never worried about limited motion in my neck, pins and needles down my arms or numbness. I could walk and talk—I was fine. I was fine until I finally got an MRI and learned how bad my C-5 vertebra really was—and my C-6 and C-7. If I actually do have any mental injuries from my work over there, I still have not come to grips with them either.
My buddy is coming to grips with his own issues. He has been blown up on more than one occasion. He has been in at least one incident where a missile actually landed so close to him he was knocked on his butt and when he got up, his clothes were actually smoking from the heat of the explosion. He served his country with distinct honor not just through his endeavors as a U.S. Marine, but through the life of a contractor as well.
Many contractors serving overseas rarely come back to the States for any period of time. In fact, I know at least two very good friends I consider true brothers who have served continuously overseas for at least six years. Imagine serving overseas in Afghanistan for six years consecutively? What does that do to a person’s life? They have some of the best stories but many of them remain tucked deep inside their minds.
Now, it’s understood that many people will say: Who cares…they are mercenaries and are doing it only for the money?
First and foremost, while they may be construed as mercenaries or guns for hire, rest assured not everyone is operating abroad in Afghanistan just for the money. I have spoken about the economic comparison between our uniformed members and contractors in the past on Fox News. There isn’t really that big a difference.
Contractors serving abroad are just as patriotic and selfless in their actions as our own uniform-wearing service members. In fact, I don’t know one contractor who didn’t wear a uniform during at least one point in their career. The majority of contractors realized we are in a war and didn’t want to leave behind their fellow warriors who either wear or don’t wear the uniform. So they volunteered to support America's mission in the fight abroad.
In fact, a very large portion of contractors do the very same mission as our service members. They go out on patrols, they engage with the locals, they build infrastructure, they find IEDs, they collect intelligence, they debrief commanders, etc.
The biggest difference between contractors and those wearing a uniform is alarming though. Service members can obtain care and treatment for their physical and mental injuries sustained while serving abroad through government initiatives. Our contractors cannot because they are considered civilian contractors.
My friend is one of many warriors in dire need of assistance. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) by a civilian specialist. He is not alone as many contractors who served abroad have these issues needing assistance.
But where should contractors turn to? Who is willing to assist them? What non-profit organization has been established to provide them with treatment? How many Americans truly understand the life of a contractor on a level that would lead them to donate money to an organization founded to help contractors?
We as a nation have placed way too much bias and prejudice toward defense contractors. We have neglected the stark reality about the current war being fought in Afghanistan. That reality comes with numbers—more than half of the entire fighting force serving in Afghanistan constitutes civilians and those get injured and die the same way our service members do.
In no way should this be meant to undermine the service member and their heroic actions nor the atrocities that unfolded in Afghanistan earlier this week. What this is meant to do is shed some light on a serious need in America and that need is a change in thinking about those who have been under-appreciated—contractors.
My buddy is in serious need right now. Many like him are in similar positions needing proper treatment but finding that treatment is much more complex for the contractor than it is for the uniform-wearing service member. In fact, as alone as many diagnosed PTSD and TBI military members feel, contractors feel no different. But truth be told, at least the service member has options for treatment where the contractor has been left in the cold.
There is a very new and growing dilemma facing the United States as the world continues to face physical violence. The more we place our defenders, including our contractors, in harm’s way, the more our national security is at risk. The health and wellbeing of such individuals is in peril and that could be one of America’s most sensitive national security dilemmas.
Ed. Note: In 2011, the Congressional Research Service provided a report to Congress addressing contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan:
As of March 2011, DOD had more contractor personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq (155,000) than
uniformed personnel (145,000). Contractors made up 52 percent of DOD’s workforce in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since December 2009, the number of DOD contractors in Afghanistan has exceeded the number in Iraq.
According to DOD, in Afghanistan, as of March 2011, there were 90,339 DOD contractor personnel, compared to approximately 99,800 uniformed personnel.
Related at The US Report