Line Increasingly Blurred Between Soldiers and Civilian Contractors
By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A01
While on missions in Iraq last year, 35-year-old Todd Drobnick was attacked by small-arms fire, grenades and makeshift bombs. Yet he continued to go out day after day, until he died in a vehicle crash on his way from one U.S. military base to another. For his loyalty and dedication, he was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Thousands of Americans in Iraq have received such honors, but Drobnick's case was unusual: He wasn't a soldier. He was a private contractor working with a translation company.
"He died in the service of his country and the gratitude of his comrades is deep and lasting," U.S. Army Col. Gary L. Parrish, assistant chief of staff of intelligence, wrote in a letter to Drobnick's family after his death.
Several other contractors have received battlefield commendations in Iraq, too, but the military says it was a mistake. Only active-duty soldiers are eligible for the awards and those received by civilians are being rescinded.
"This is not to say that what the contractors did wasn't valorous or wasn't important, but legally we aren't supposed to give them these awards," said Shari Lawrence, an Army spokeswoman.
The confusion demonstrates that in many situations soldiers and civilian contractors have become virtually indistinguishable -- and interchangeable -- in postwar Iraq.
The occupation could not function without contractors. Construction giants such as Bechtel Inc., Fluor Corp., Parsons Corp. and Perini Corp., are rebuilding the country's infrastructure. Blackwater Security Consulting and Erinys, staffed with former Special Forces fighters, provide security details for occupation personnel. General Dynamics Corp. and Halliburton Inc. subsidiary KBR supply the military with support personnel who handle such diverse duties as repairing tanks and cooking.
The estimated tens of thousand of contractors in Iraq -- who according to the Brookings Institute amount to more than 10 percent of U.S. personnel there -- have become a flashpoint for the troubles of the U.S.-led occupation.
First, there were accusations that lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq had been given to allies of the Bush administration. Then, after four security contactors were killed last month while escorting a U.S. military convoy, there were concerns about the lack of rules and regulations governing the private armies. Now, with allegations that contractors may have allowed or instructed soldiers to abuse detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, there are questions about their accountability in a place where laws are still being written.
"What we're seeing is the extreme result for this passion for outsourcing which ignores the fact that there are some things only government should do," said Danielle Brian, executive director of Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Former hostage Thomas Hamill, center, was a truck driver in Iraq and worked for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary.
(U.S. Army Via Reuters)
Transcript: Washington Post staff writers Ariana Eunjung Cha and Renae Merle discuss this article