Service Civilians and the Wounds of War

Mike Helms, wounded in Iraq, said he has received insufficient treatment.
Mike Helms, wounded in Iraq, said he has received insufficient treatment. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Traveling through Sunni insurgent territory north of Baghdad, the U.S. military convoy was nearing a base when a roadside bomb ripped into the lead Humvee, leaving its gunner, Mike Helms, bleeding and swaying from a strap in the open back.

Helms, 31, a civilian counterintelligence expert with the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group, had been sent to Iraq in 2004 to help fill a critical intelligence gap in the area known as the Sunni Triangle. While in Iraq, he lived with soldiers and ate military rations, took fire from mortar rounds and small arms, and clocked hundreds of miles manning a machine gun on the back of a Humvee.

Nevertheless, his status as an Army civilian would leave him stranded in the aftermath of the June 16, 2004, attack, when the bomb hit his Humvee so hard it blew his M-60 off its turret.

In the months that followed, Helms recalled, he was denied vital care for his wounds -- ranging from shrapnel in his left arm to traumatic brain injury. Forced to rely on federal workers' compensation and turned away from regular care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals, Helms has faced years of frustration grappling with bureaucracies unprepared to help a government civilian wounded in combat.

"I did not have an 'accident' while working. I was subjected to an offensive attack by an enemy of the U.S. government who attempted to kill me," said Helms, now a counterintelligence agent at the 902nd's Fort Knox, Ky., field office. "Why am I under workers' comp if workers' comp does not recognize a combat injury?"

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strain the U.S. military, the Pentagon is sending civilian workers such as Helms into war zones to provide critical support to the troops, raising questions about their status and treatment.

Several thousand Defense Department civilian employees -- with about 3,300 of them from the Army -- are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data. Since 2001, about 7,500 DOD civilians have worked in those combat zones or in anti-terrorism capacities elsewhere, including seven who died there and 118 who were injured.

"We must use government civilians . . . to fill out the force or we could not do our job right now," said Gary J. Motsek, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for program support. He called the civilians "unheralded patriots."

Army officials have acknowledged serious gaps in Helms's treatment and have pledged to fix them, but he says that despite repeated assurances over three years, he has not obtained the specialized care he needs. U.S. troops receive coordinated care from military doctors accustomed to battlefield injuries, but Helms's treatment has come from a hodgepodge of mainly civilian providers -- a mix of Blue Cross and workers' compensation, plus free drugs from the military that he obtains through a back-door deal with his local Army hospital.

DOD civilians such as Helms perform vital missions in Iraq. They maintain and repair equipment, provide technical expertise on new weapons systems, conduct investigations, oversee contracts and serve in logistics, engineering, medical and intelligence jobs. They work long hours and share the same -- often austere -- living conditions as U.S. troops. At the time he was injured, Helms was doing intelligence work and training novice troops in weapons and tactics.

An Army jobs Web site currently seeks civilian employees "with sharp military intelligence skills to work side by side with our troops" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and elsewhere. "You are expected to perform military intelligence tasks as close as possible to what would be expected of military," one job description reads, while working "a 12 hour day, seven days a week."

In the back of an armored Stryker vehicle, Army civilian Benjamin Needles recently ventured into the volatile town of Baqubah on his job as a senior intelligence analyst for U.S. commanders, covering "a spectrum of issues from counterterrorism to governance," he said. If wounded, Needles added, he would expect to be treated "like any other soldier" -- an expectation not fulfilled in Helms's case.


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