Contractor deaths add up in Iraq

Published: Saturday, Feb. 24 2007 12:00 a.m. MST

Flora Patino of San Antonio, Texas, holds a photo of her son, Hector C. Patino, a contractor who died while driving a truck in Iraq.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

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In a largely invisible cost of the war in Iraq, nearly 800 civilians working under contract to the Pentagon have been killed and more than 3,300 hurt doing jobs normally handled by the U.S. military, including at least three Utahns, according to figures gathered by The Associated Press.

Exactly how many of these employees doing the Pentagon's work are Americans is uncertain. But the casualty figures make it clear that the Defense Department's count of more than 3,100 U.S. military dead does not tell the whole story.

"It's another unseen expense of the war," said Thomas Houle, a retired Air Force reservist whose brother-in-law died while driving a truck in Iraq. "It's almost disrespectful that it doesn't get the kind of publicity or respect that a soldier would."

Employees of defense contractors such as Halliburton, Blackwater and Wackenhut cook meals, do laundry, repair infrastructure, translate documents, analyze intelligence, guard prisoners, protect military convoys, deliver water in the heavily fortified Green Zone and stand sentry at buildings — often highly dangerous duties almost identical to those performed by many U.S. troops.

The United States has outsourced so many war and reconstruction duties that there are almost as many contractors (120,000) as U.S. troops (135,000) in the war zone.

The insurgents in Iraq make little if any distinction between the contractors and U.S. troops.

In January, four contractors for Blackwater were killed when their helicopter was downed by gunfire in Baghdad. One of them, 52-year-old Arthur Laguna, was the brother of a prominent Utah helicopter pilot. Dan Laguna, of North Salt Lake, told the Deseret Morning News that he was flying the same mission as his brother was flying and he could do nothing but watch as the bird went down.

Another of Blackwater's private contractors from Utah was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in September 2005. Kenneth Webb, 42, was one of four security personnel to die in the attack, which targeted a State Department motorcade he was hired to protect.

Earlier that same year, Sgt. Brandon Thomas, who had returned from a tour in Iraq with the Utah National Guard, was killed after two suicide car bombers plowed into a foreign security convoy he was with. He had been working as a civilian security contractor when the group was attacked. Thomas, 27, was one of more than 40 people killed in the attack. Three other American civilians who were also working as private contractors at the time were injured.

In 2004, two Americans and a British engineer were kidnapped and decapitated. That same year, a mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy escorted by contractors, burning and mutilating the guards' bodies and stringing up two of them from a bridge.

A roadside bomb in August 2004 killed Kevin Rader, a 34-year-old Utahn working for a division of Halliburton in Iraq. Rader was driving a fuel tanker for KBR Engineering, Construction and Services. He lived in Murray and was one of three employees apparently killed in that explosion and one of 45 KBR subcontractors killed in Kuwait and Iraq that year.

Despite such examples, when contractors are killed or wounded, the casualties are off the books, in a sense.

While the Defense Department issues a press release whenever a soldier or Marine dies, the AP had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain figures on many of the civilian deaths and injuries from the Labor Department, which tracks claims for workers' compensation.

By the end of 2006, the Labor Department had quietly recorded 769 deaths and 3,367 injuries serious enough to require four or more days off the job.

"It used to be, womb to tomb, the military took care of everything. We had cooks. We had people who ran recreation facilities. But those are not core competencies you need to run a war," said Brig. Gen. Neil Dial, deputy director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command.

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