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.
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.
Gentry's family had a closed-coffin ceremony. "There is no closure that way. It's like a bad dream," said his wife, Vicki Gentry.
DynCorp spokesman Mike Dickerson said the company tries to repatriate contractors' bodies as quickly as possible. "It's been my understanding that the policies on the government side have been evolving over a period time [to conform with] real world requirements," he said.
The Pentagon is attempting to streamline the process, said Maj. Thomas Booker of the Theater Mortuary Affairs Office in Kuwait. The goal is to have contractors' bodies returned quickly, like those of soldiers, he said. "That's something that we have been battling on this end to try to get the process speeded up," Booker said.
Yet some changes the Pentagon is proposing could complicate -- not streamline -- the process, contractors say. Under a Pentagon proposal that would shift the job to contractors, the military would no longer ship contractors' remains from Iraq to Kuwait.
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry group, said given the lack of commercial flights and the problems with ground transportation, it is unrealistic to assume a contractor can quickly move a body out of Iraq. "If a contract employee is deep in theater, it may not be possible for the contractor to evacuate the body," he said. "It's important that the rules reflect the realities on the ground and contain the necessary flexibility."
The Pentagon is also proposing that contractors be required to notify families of killed employees in person -- as the military does for soldiers. That could require companies to dispatch representatives across the country, delaying notification, Soloway said. "You can't assume they have the same structure as the military, with representation" across the country, Soloway said. "They need the flexibility to do what's best for the company" and the families.
Many of the hundreds of police recruited by DynCorp to help train Iraq's new police have requested their home police departments make the notifications, DynCorp's Dickerson said. "Because of the long standing and community ties, that has sometimes been done out of respect," he said.
There are also questions about how contractors who distinguish themselves during the war should be honored. The Army says a "handful" of Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, for which only soldiers are eligible, have been improperly awarded to civilian contractors. Titan Corp. officials said its employees have received more than 100 commendations for their actions during the conflict. That includes Todd Drobnick, 35, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star after he died in a vehicle crash on his way to a military base. The Army has said the medals awarded to contractors will be revoked.
Contractors are eligible for the Defense of Freedom Medal, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to honor civilian Pentagon employees killed in the attacks. None have been awarded to contractors working in Iraq, although one award is under consideration, according to the Pentagon.
Even small gestures to honor contractors can be difficult. After Scott Helvenston, a Blackwater Security Consulting employee and former Navy Seal, was killed while guarding a military convoy delivering food to troops, his high school friends set up a scholarship fund in his honor. His friends wanted to publicize the scholarship during a May event organized by Florida state Rep. Baxter G. Troutman (R) and being held in Helvenston's hometown, Leesburg, Fla.
Eddy Twyford, one of Helvenston's friends, said their efforts were rebuffed by Troutman's staff because Helvenston was a private contractor. "They'd be naming streets after him if he was still enlisted," Twyford said.
"It's hard enough for me dealing with the fact that he's not here," Twyford said. "What [upsets me] is when people don't give him respect."
Troutman said the event, which was attended by 8,000 people, including Laura Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was not meant to discount the service of contractors. "This was for the servicemen and women who are not there by choice; to me, that makes a difference," he said. "If I am an employee of a company and don't like what I am being subjected to, then I can come back home" -- an option not open to soldiers.
Families of some civilian contractors say a bigger problem is the disparities in death benefits. Most soldiers carry $250,000 in life insurance, and their spouses are eligible for nearly $1,000 a month in benefits. Those benefits can be denied only if there is misconduct on the part of the soldier, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.
In contrast, contractors' insurance coverage, which is mandated by the Defense Base Act, does not require a life insurance policy. It does guarantee families $250 to $1,000 week in benefits, depending on a contractor's salary, but those benefits can be withheld if the contractor does not die during a work-related activity, industry experts said.
In Iraq, civilian contractors risk their families' benefits if they wander into unsecured areas. "If you make some kind of mistake -- going into a sector that wasn't cleared -- does that reflect what kind of benefits your family will receive?" said Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It wouldn't in the military, but it does for some civilians."
Emad Mikha, 44, died in his sleep while serving as a Titan translator in Muqdadiyah, about 70 miles northeast of Baghdad. His family is eligible for a Titan life insurance policy equal to a year of Mikha's annual pay, $70,000, but not the monthly workers' compensation payments his wife, Rita, was depending on to pay her a portion of his salary for life.
The cause of Mikha's death would not have mattered if he were a soldier. But under the insurance policy secured by his employer, dying of natural causes is not covered. "It's not fair. He was with the Army. He was doing his duty like them," said Rita Mikha, who says she will appeal the insurance company's decision. "He was in a war zone like them, so why they treat him different? I don't understand."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate and staff writer Ellen McCarthy contributed to this report.