The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last 20 years have remade the nature of military service. Here’s how.

Contractors are increasingly doing dangerous work helping our troops — without any of the recognition.

Ceremonial flags used in funerals for Benjamin and Jeremy Wise lie on the sofa at the home of the Wises on April 27, 2013, in Camden, Ark. Jean and Mary Wise of Camden, parents of four, lost two sons to the war in Afghanistan. Jeremy Wise, 35, former Navy SEAL, a CIA contractor, died guarding a post in Afghanistan in 2009. Army Sgt. First Class Benjamin Wise, 34, a Special Forces medic, was killed by insurgent fire in Afghanistan in 2012. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has again sparked debates about America’s involvement over the past two decades in the Graveyard of Empires. The nature of the withdrawal, the billions of dollars spent and the thousands of lives lost have drawn attention, most of it negative.

On this Veterans Day, we will honor those who served in this, and other, wars. But what about the private contractors who have also played a significant role in the most recent U.S. war effort? They filled gaps in jobs ranging from security and bomb disposal to transporting supplies and serving food. And 8,189 contractors died in combat zones compared with 7,052 in the U.S. military. Others suffered wounds and continue battling PTSD.

How do we commemorate and honor their service and sacrifice?

While contractors have been involved in past wars, no other conflict relied so heavily on them. In past wars, the U.S. military typically filled its needs in logistics and security. However, during the Vietnam War, the government hired contractors to build bases and ports, many of which employed Vietnamese laborers. The United States wanted to keep the number of military personnel lower, and to allow them to focus on combat operations. Using contractors also funneled money into the local economy.

After Vietnam, the military relied heavily on the Reserve and Guard to provide significant logistical support, but this proved unpopular as it disrupted the lives of thousands of everyday citizens. So, the military returned once more to hiring contractors to fill increasingly complex jobs such as bomb disposal and aircraft maintenance. This was certainly the case in 2001 when America’s longest war started in Afghanistan and then spread to Iraq and beyond.

After 9/11, many contractors actually began their careers in the military before transferring to more lucrative positions in organizations such as Blackwater, a company that received $2 billion in government aid to provide security for aid workers, diplomats and other high-ranking government officials and embassies. The company often employed veterans with specialized training in the SEALs and Green Berets. They were very active in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Employees included Jeremy Wise, who committed himself to becoming a soldier at an early age. He originally followed in his father’s footsteps and attended medical school. But he left after two years, and at the age of 28 (not long after 9/11), he joined the Navy, intent on becoming a SEAL. While heatstroke sidetracked his first effort, he ultimately persevered and earned the prized Trident to put on his uniform to signify his status as a SEAL.

Over time, however, Wise’s zeal waned, alongside that of the American people. He returned for a second tour, comparing Iraq to “the Wild West.” Following his third tour, he grew tired of the military bureaucracy and left the military, but he found a different way to serve his country and make more money by joining Xe Services (formerly Blackwater, renamed after the killing of 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007, for which several Blackwater employees were tried and convicted, one of murder).

Soon, he found himself in Afghanistan working with the CIA, joining his two brothers already in country (one a Marine and another a Green Beret). On Dec. 30, 2009, Wise joined several other Xe operatives and high-ranking CIA officers at Operating Base Chapman in Khost to try to procure information on the No. 2 leader in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. During the effort, a suicide bomber killed Wise and eight others.

His body was returned in January 2010 to the United States, where his two brothers and family met the body alongside family members of the dead CIA officers. The family, including a large contingent of SEALs as well as Xe personnel, held a memorial service to remember Wise for his heroic commitment to his country. They laid him to rest, soon joined by his younger brother, also killed in Afghanistan.

Other private contractors faced deadly conditions transporting supplies, guarding U.S. installations, maintaining sophisticated weapons and building U.S. bases. Consider the story of Cindy Morgan, who headed to Iraq in 2003 to work as a truck driver for Haliburton, a primary contractor for the war.

Her motivations paralleled those of Wise’s. The $80,000-$90,000 tax free salary as a contractor offered her a chance to escape debt and buy her own rig. Nonetheless, she emphasized: “I wanted to serve my country, too. I told my family that I was going to Iraq so I could help the troops, just like somebody else might help my son if he found himself in Iraq as well.”

And indeed, the Iraq War effort depended on this work to free up U.S. troops to concentrate on fighting, and later for occupation duties. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also wanted to keep the number of troops down, believing that the mission would end quickly. Additionally, this strategy reflected the reality of a much smaller military by the end of the Cold War.

Driving trucks filled with everything from meat, fresh vegetables, ice and fuel from Kuwait City to Iraqi locations including Baghdad and Mosul was dangerous work — something Morgan understood. Early on, Iraqis threw rocks through the windshields. Over time, the enemy grew more sophisticated, with IEDs lining the roads. As casualties mounted, Morgan noted that such deaths led some “commentators in the States” to say “we were mercenaries trying to make money off the war. If we were killed or hurt, well, we shouldn’t be considered innocent civilians.” She disagreed and continued working for more than a year, often volunteering for missions.

Contractor deaths increased, especially in 2004 and 2005, even while most Americans received little news about these losses. This was by design. Companies wanted people to sign on for the work, which they advertised as a way to earn very good money while serving the country. They also began recruiting foreign workers from places such as Jamaica, the Philippines and India. Many never learned the true extent of the dangers until in the war zone. While the U.S. military began providing security on convoys, protecting cargoes seemed more important than the lives of the contractors.

Beyond military threats, Morgan also found that sexual harassment and abuse proliferated. In housing in Kuwait, someone entered Morgan’s room and held a knife to her throat before sexually assaulting her. Morgan accused the company of being remarkably unmotivated and inept at trying to find the perpetrator.

And that wasn’t the only threat. When contractors were kidnapped by insurgents, many companies hesitated to pay ransoms — leading to more deaths, such as that of contractor and former Marine Joshua Munns.

Ultimately, one day Morgan published on a personal website her thanks to the U.S. military escorts who intervened in a gun battle that wounded her passenger and left shrapnel in her shoulder. Haliburton security personnel soon handed her a termination letter with no official explanation. She believed it was payback for reporting the sexual assault and the company’s bungled response. “One thing you could say about KBR: They were pretty damn efficient when they wanted to get rid of you.”

Once home, she wrote a book in which she concluded: “I was proud to say I was a civilian contractor in Iraq. … I was proud to be an American. And I was proud of the work we were doing in Iraq. And I was proud of myself.”

Contractors often bore the brunt of some of the worst jobs, including bomb disposal and security, knowing they would never receive the lifelong benefits of U.S. military veterans — and the death toll reminds us of the cost. Veterans Day is an opportunity to thank those who have served and also to rethink the notion of who is a veteran and who deserves to be honored for their service (and in the case of many, their lives). The reality of war has changed, and so too should our concept of service.