When he was deployed in Iraq, 31-year-old Vincent Foster assured his mother that despite the long hours and what he called "skirmishes" with insurgents, he was where he belonged. Foster was working for Cochise Consultancy Inc., securing stockpiles of old munitions, when he was killed by a roadside bomb outside Bayji, in the northern part of the country. He died on the way to the hospital.
Foster, a former Marine sniper, is one of at least 110 contractors working for U.S. firms who have died in Iraq, according to industry estimates. Experts say the number of casualties could be far higher, given the tens of thousands of private contractors who have taken over duties for the military. The Pentagon does not keep an official count, and many companies do not announce when their employees in Iraq are killed. By comparison, there were seven contractor deaths in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office.
Vincent Foster, a former Marine employed by Cochise Consultancy, was in Iraq to guard Iraqi weapons that were being destroyed. He was killed by a roadside bomb in northern Iraq and died on the way to the hospital.
The deaths have created an overlooked subculture of war-related grief, one in which contractors' families confront a bureaucracy that is largely inventing procedures on the fly. Inconsistent corporate responses and murky government procedures exacerbate families' already raw emotions. Unlike when soldiers and officers die in the line of duty, few fixed rules apply to contractor casualties.
"If he had still been with the Marines, he would have gotten a Purple Heart, I think he would have, for bravery," said Foster's mother, Susan Foster. "It kind of irks me a little bit, that he was working with the military" and not being recognized for it, she said. "He believed so much in what he was doing, the whole patriotism thing down the line."
Contractors are paid more than soldiers are, but their life insurance policies are usually not as generous or as ironclad. A dead soldier's family is guaranteed life insurance and death benefits.
And although the military generally transports soldiers' and contractors' bodies together from Iraq to Kuwait, they are treated differently upon arrival. The military aims to fly soldiers' bodies to Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware within three days of their arrival at the Kuwait processing center. Contractors generally have to find a commercial flight to ship the bodies, and that can take time.
It took nearly a week for Foster's body to be returned to the United States. When his mother requested a 21-gun salute for his funeral, the Marines did not respond. Foster received the honor only after his family members asked their senator, Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), for help.
The military handles the repatriation of contractors when they cannot be identified immediately or if a company requests help, military officials said. For instance, the military repatriated the body of Nicholas Berg, the American businessman who was beheaded. But such assistance requires approval from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and the State Department, which can take four or five days, they said.
After Jesse Gentry and Henry A. Doll III, two DynCorp employees, were killed in Iraq, DynCorp officials initially said the military would help return the bodies to the United States, according to Gentry's and Doll's families. But after several days of confusion, DynCorp, a unit of Computer Sciences Corp., put the employees' remains on a commercial flight. By the time they arrived in the United States, the bodies had begun to deteriorate.
The funeral director advised Doll's family not to view the remains, which were then cremated. "We've already had to deal with a tragedy, now this," said Doll's son, Henry, a Maryland state trooper. Doll's family is awaiting DNA test results to make sure they received the correct body.