|Soldiers of Misfortune
Critical elements of the war in Iraq have been outsourced to private contractors. John Mancini's story shows the many
perils of that approach.
By Chris Thompson
Published: October 4, 2006
John Mancini is a talented and detail-oriented professional, with an aversion to authority and a tendency to talk more
than is good for him. In another life, he might be a gadfly, haranguing government bureaucrats at city council meetings.
But because Mancini had some very marketable skills, he became a bureaucrat himself, working in Iraq and Kuwait for
some of the world's largest defense contractors. Over the course of sixteen months in 2003 and 2004, he worked for and
clashed with three of the companies at the center of the debate over privatizing the military. Every time they pissed him
off, they lived to regret it. "I'm not passive," he explained. "I was born and raised in New York City, okay?"
John Mancini blew the whistle on Halliburton after he was transferred to a war zone.
The Pleasanton offices of Mancini’s last employer, Procurement Services Associates.
Henry Bunting with one example of waste: a monogrammed KBR towel.
Mancini says he can’t work today because of the swelling in his feet.
Subject(s): CACI, Procurement Services Associates, Halliburton, John Mancini Mancini has helped streamline military and
espionage budgets ever since the 1970s. He started with Loral Electronics, which rebuilt worn circuitboards on F-16
fighter planes. After moving to Arizona in the 1980s, he worked for Motorola and Sperry Space Systems, buying
equipment for Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program and surveillance satellites launched from the space shuttle. He took
a break from defense work to buy data-processing equipment for American Express, but began to get restless. "I had
gotten divorced," he recalled, "and I always had opportunities to travel throughout, but being married, and you know, you
had a child, that put limits on your ability to move."
In 2001, Mancini took advantage of one of those travel opportunities, moving to Kuwait and working for Combat Support
Associates. American and Kuwaiti militaries were conducting joint training operations at the time, and Mancini's job was
finding cheaper ways to repair military equipment. Before he came along, the army would ship worn tank barrels back to
the United States for repairs. Then he found a Kuwaiti machine shop that could do the job on the cheap. "I cut the time
from nine months to three months, and cut 50 percent of the costs," he boasted.
That was Mancini's career in a nutshell: hunting for cheap, efficient ways to conduct military operations. It seemed so
simple and uncontroversial — look for competitive bidders, scan for excessive costs, and apply some common sense —
at least until he signed up with Halliburton.
In 2003, Mancini became one of the soldiers in the new, privatized American military. During prior wars, the Pentagon
relied only sporadically on private companies. But in Iraq, critical functions in the occupation have been farmed out to
multinational corporations, some of which are led by former government officials who may have used their connections to
secure no-bid, multibillion-dollar contracts. Today, 25,000 American civilians are working on logistical and security
functions in Iraq, and Halliburton alone employs another 37,000 civilians from other countries such as the Philippines and
Meanwhile, the number of Pentagon auditors and contract managers has steadily fallen, crippling the government's
ability to ensure the public's money is being spent wisely. The inevitable result has been corruption, sloppy accounting,
and a sense that no one would hold these new civilian soldiers accountable no matter what they did. Mancini watched all
of this from inside secure compounds in Kuwait and Iraq. He saw people waste millions of dollars and dream up
complicated kickback schemes. He saw British mercenaries get drunk and play with guns in 120-degree heat. He saw the
banality of human beings who have too much money and authority and too few restraints.
In 2004, the Pleasanton-based temporary employment firm Procurement Services Associates (PSA) hired Mancini to do
purchasing paperwork on behalf of Perini Corporation, which had secured the contract to rebuild the electrical
infrastructure in southern Iraq. A little more than a month into his new job, Mancini was badly injured in a car accident in
Kuwait. Perini officials flew him home, but Procurement Services Associates initially refused to pay for his rehabilitation —
a decision the company probably came to regret. Mancini filed a claim with the federal government, alleging that PSA
had shafted him in violation of federal law. In addition, he has been cooperating with the Los Angeles Times, which has
begun investigating claims that civilian workers injured in Iraq and Kuwait have been illegally denied medical care.
If Mancini turned out to be a big headache, PSA officials should have realized who they were dealing with. After all, he
was one of the two men who blew open the $1.4 billion Halliburton overbilling scandal. In fact, Mancini has been at or
near the center of some of the worst mistakes in the war. From Halliburton to Abu Ghraib to this emerging civilian health-
care dispute, Mancini had a close view of all the occupation's stupidity, arrogance, venality, and cruelty.
His story is the story of the privatized military in Iraq. First he worked for a company that screwed the American
taxpayers. Then he worked alongside men who allegedly tortured countless Iraqis. Finally, he claims, his third and final
employer ended up giving workers like him the shaft.
In 2001, Halliburton received a no-bid, multibillion-dollar contract to provide logistical support for any and all military
operations in the Persian Gulf region. No other company was considered; the contract just landed in the company's lap.
This set the tone for what would become a remarkably casual use of government money, as Halliburton employees
allegedly ignored the basic principles Mancini had spent his professional life upholding.
Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) hired Mancini fourteen months later to keep an eye on cost
overruns in its Middle East operations. War was approaching, and KBR executives knew they would have to provide
everything from mess halls to water purification plants for the occupation. Mancini landed in Kuwait and was driven to
"Camp Khalifa," a former tourist resort that had been converted into KBR's base of operations. The heat hovered above
one hundred degrees, but Mancini and his colleagues had no time to splash around in the resort's swimming pools. They
were busting their humps fourteen hours a day, doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds through buy
orders for everything from cell phones and fire trucks to exercise equipment.
Mancini found an operation in complete disarray. Kellogg, Brown and Root had no computers with which to record its
transactions. Everything was written on scraps of paper, and employees skimming off the top or taking bribes from
subcontractors could simply tear up and rewrite the records. According to Mancini, KBR managers told employees not to
worry about the price of whatever they were buying, that it was "cost-plus," and that the company would be reimbursed
by the government, with a profit slapped on top. One employee, Mancini said, logged a multimillion-dollar contract as a
$200 purchase in company records. Company officials told Mancini to keep individual purchases under $2,500 as often
as he could, to avoid the headache of soliciting bids.
Slowly, Mancini grew friendly with Henry Bunting, a "field buyer" who shared his misgivings about how business was being
conducted. "One of the things that KBR said was the fastest way to get sent home from Kuwait was talk to the press, talk
to the congressmen, or get drunk or use drugs," Bunting said. "We used to joke that if they kept harassing us, we'd talk
to our congressman."
Mancini's worst discovery involved the purchase of cell-phone contracts. KBR official Jeff Mazon was using a Kuwaiti
middleman to secure cell-phone services for KBR, and charging a 10 percent markup. With just a few phone calls,
Mancini learned that neither the middleman nor the markup was necessary. After he pointed this out to his supervisor,
KBR officials took the project from him and transferred it to a different department. Mancini began to suspect that Mazon
was on the take.
That, Mancini said, was the beginning of a campaign of harassment and intimidation by KBR officials. His Bosnian
supervisors informed him that they were transferring him to a new office inside Iraq, where mortar fire and attacks were
frequent. Mancini refused to go. "They restricted me to quarters; 'You're not doing this, you're not doing that,'" he said. "I
says, 'Fuck you. You're not even an American.'" Eventually, Mancini's bosses gave him an ultimatum. "They say, 'You
have to go, you're leaving tomorrow,'" he said. "And I said, 'Fuck you, I ain't leaving.' They got pretty nasty. But I had
contacted the embassy. I wanted to make sure nothing happened to me. The thing is, it's a big desert out there. People
In midsummer 2003, Mancini quit and got on a plane home to Phoenix. He kept in touch with Bunting via e-mail, and the
two men got angry. "I just got fed up with the poor business practices," Bunting said. "They weren't good stewards of the
government's money. ... I think they were in cahoots with many of these vendors that they had on this preferred-vendor
list. I can't prove it, but it's mighty suspicious when you're not looking for the lowest price." Bunting quit in August, but as
the months went by, he realized that someone had to hear about Kellogg, Brown and Root's business practices. In
January 2004, he decided to talk.
Bunting spilled his guts in e-mail to Congressman Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on
Government Reform, the body charged with ensuring that government contracts are free of corruption and fraud. When
Waxman's staff contacted Bunting, he provided a host of supporting documents and told them to talk to John Mancini.
The two men became the first Halliburton employees to expose what would become a historic scandal.
On February 12, Waxman released an open letter to the Pentagon, demanding an investigation and summarizing what
Bunting and Mancini had told his office. Halliburton was leasing cars at a rate of $7,500 a month. Plywood was being
bought for $100 a sheet. The company bought 50,000 pounds of nails that were the wrong size, and dumped them in the
desert. Their employees' mobile homes were falling apart. Company employees were splitting purchase orders into
pieces to get around rules about securing the lowest possible bid; Mancini estimated that up to 80 percent of purchase
orders were manipulated.
"What is most disturbing about these allegations from the whistleblowers is the regular and routine nature of the
overcharging," Waxman wrote. "The whistle-blowers describe a company that paid inflated prices for goods and services
on a daily basis and then passed these overcharges on to the US taxpayer. An approach of 'Don't worry — it's cost-plus'
may be lucrative for Halliburton, but it should be of great concern to the government and the taxpayer."
The investigation began to snowball. Waxman set up a hotline for Halliburton employees, and informers crept out from
the shadows. Truck driver David Wilson told Waxman's office that Kellogg, Brown and Root would drive empty trucks
around Iraq, billing taxpayers for transporting phantom cargo. In addition, he claimed that KBR managers refused to
stockpile spare tires and oil for the engines, and whenever employees got a flat tire, they abandoned the $85,000
vehicles to looters. Employee Marie De Young claimed that the company spent up to $1.2 million on laundry services, or
$100 per bag. In July, Bunting testified before Congress, where he displayed one of hundreds of towels KBR had
monogrammed at $7.50 apiece, or three times the going rate. Meanwhile, Mancini was providing anonymous tips to the
Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, claiming KBR had spent $750,000 buying fire trucks whose hose
mountings couldn't work with the hoses in Kuwait; at one point, he said, firefighters had to sit back and watch as a
building burned to the ground.
After Bunting's testimony, the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency initiated an investigation into two Halliburton
contracts and identified $1.4 billion in questionable or unsupported costs. Jeff Mazon, the employee who negotiated the
cell-phone contract Mancini found so excessive, was indicted by a federal grand jury in March 2005 on ten counts of
fraud. Mazon allegedly bid up a contract to supply fuel tankers for the occupation by as much as $3.5 million, in return
for a $1 million kickback. His trial is still pending. Last July, Army spokespeople announced they were ending Halliburton's
contract for logistical help in Iraq. By then, the company had earned approximately $18.5 billion.
Halliburton representative Melissa Norcross did not respond to several requests for comment, but issued the following
statement at the time of the contract's dissolution: "By all accounts, KBR's logistical achievements in support of the
troops in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan have been nothing short of amazing."
Halliburton's Iraq windfall has defined the era of the privatized war machine. According to Brookings Institution scholar
Peter Singer, who documented the trend in a Foreign Affairs article last year, three elements converged to place global
military action in the hands of private armies and supporting companies. The end of the Cold War led to a substantial
reduction in the size of standing armies around the world, even as civil wars and tribal conflicts created a new demand
for mercenaries. The American military grew to depend on high-tech tools innovated by private companies, and a
general ideological trend toward privatization led policymakers to apply the new standards to the military, which had
heretofore been the exclusive province of the state. Sixteen years later, the results are clear, according to author Pratap
Chatterjee, who has been tracking corporate involvement in Iraq and Kuwait. During the first Persian Gulf War, one in
one hundred personnel was a private contractor. Today, Chatterjee claims, that ratio is one in three.
These private employees, who number around seventy thousand in Iraq and Kuwait, do everything from shooting the
enemy to feeding the army. Soldiers hired by Blackwater and Erinys International patrol the oil pipelines and guard
convoys driving through Baghdad. Employees from CACI and Titan Corporation participated in interrogations at Abu
Ghraib. And, of course, Halliburton was responsible for a vast array of support services, operating at least sixty camps in
Kuwait and Iraq, shipping in supplies and serving food, purifying water and delivering mail — even setting up movie
theaters, videogame arcades, and Subway sandwich outlets. Chatterjee, the author of Iraq, Inc. and executive director of
the Oakland-based Corpwatch, claims that Halliburton is so intertwined with official military strategy that many of its
employees actually enter the theater of operations ahead of soldiers. "In Bosnia, the military invaded, and Halliburton
followed," he said. "In Afghanistan, the military invaded, and Halliburton followed. ... Here, Halliburton arrived before the
military. This was unique to Iraq."
In the surreal world of bases such as Camp Anaconda, located just north of Baghdad, the globalized economy has been
eerily replicated. The Army's old quartermaster battalions have been replaced with tens of thousands of Indian and
Filipino migrant laborers, who clean the toilets and serve three flavors of ice cream to American troops. Many soldiers
are grateful to Halliburton for the first-class treatment, but Chatterjee notes that the outsourcing of support services
focuses the troops' duties on nothing but killing and patrolling, leaving them more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress
In addition, Peter Singer claims that that the practice of posting soldiers next to mercenaries who earn up to ten times
their salaries will create a serious problem, as private armies poach the military's best special forces and beef up their
"coalition of the billing." In essence, the Pentagon is now paying for the training of sophisticated and talented soldiers,
but these same troops will quit at the first opportunity and join the private sector, where they can shoot their guns for
whatever side will pay the most.
Sometimes, Chatterjee claims, the military's very capacity to perform is crippled by privatization, for the simple reason
that private contractors don't have to follow orders. In April 2004, when the burned corpses of four Blackwater soldiers
were hanged from a bridge in Fallujah, and eighty Halliburton trucks were attacked in insurgent operations, Halliburton
simply stopped delivering supplies. "For two weeks, they were not delivering food in Iraq," Chatterjee said. "The Army
had to reduce the number of meals in a day; they were switching to MREs even in the Republican Palace. You know,
they say an army travels on its stomach? Well, Halliburton feeds that stomach. And when they stop, the soldier starts to
Finally, private armies in Iraq can get away with things the government can't be seen to be doing, and they help obscure
the true cost of the war from the American public. For example, the Department of Defense does not include reports of
contractors killed or wounded in its official tally of casualties. And when contractors commit war crimes, no one really
knows what legal authority, if any, is supposed to prosecute them.
Take Abu Ghraib. Singer wrote that although the Army found that CACI and Titan employees were involved in 36 percent
of the incidents, "not one of these individuals has been indicted, prosecuted, or punished, even though the US Army has
found the time to try the enlisted soldiers." The only authority that investigated these contractors, he added, was their
employer: "CACI investigated CACI and, unsurprisingly, found that CACI had done no wrong."
Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney's vision of a leaner, more agile military supplemented by companies performing
specialized support work has been a multifaceted disaster, and its most dramatic failings — a steady insurgency,
sectarian chaos, the proliferation of torture — are all too familiar by now. Mancini's story illustrates a lesser-known but
equally important lesson: Turning over functions to well-connected corporations, combined with the absence of basic
government oversight, has produced little but corruption and crony capitalism. Ten of thousands are dying or maimed,
but someone is getting rich. Even the practice of doling out the private contracts has been privatized. That's exactly what
John Mancini found himself doing after he left Halliburton and took his next job with CACI.
Even as Mancini was anonymously leaking to Congress and the press, he was hankering to get back to the war. In March
2004, he signed up to handle contract administration for CACI, the company that was about to be implicated in the Abu
Ghraib torture scandal. Although Mancini never knew Steven Stephanowicz, the CACI employee listed in an Army report
as "responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib," he was required to go through a "soldier readiness program" prior to
shipping out. In April, he arrived in Fort Bliss in Texas, where he participated in the training with CACI employees who
were assigned interrogation detail in Iraq. "So I'm going through there, and you know the military, hurry up and wait,"
Mancini said. "And they give you some off time, you go to the bowling alley and the PX. And you talk with them, and those
people are kinda scary. Some of the stories they used to tell about their experiences; these were special-ops people,
and you know, they didn't admit they were CIA, but I definitely got the impression."
By the summer of 2004, Mancini found himself in Baghdad's Green Zone, pushing papers in the presidential palace and
sleeping in a tent with fifty "of my closest friends." The floor was bare sand; Mancini recalls showering in tents and being
covered in grit by the time he put on his clothes. But the food was decent, and there was plenty of beer — sometimes to
his dismay, as he watched mercenaries assigned to guard him get hammered: "The majority of people are responsible,
okay? But you had some of these British and South Africans, some of these private security details, and you'd see them
on Thursday night, which was your weekend. They'd be drunk by the pool, throwing each other in the pool with weapons.
I said, 'Make sure you change those fucking bullets before you protect me.' ... The Brits were friggin' crazy, I tell ya. I
wouldn't trust my life to a Brit."
Despite the parties and CACI's role at Abu Ghraib, Mancini claims that he often felt more comfortable around the
mercenaries than American soldiers. "The army, they were children," he said. "You know, you can understand why they
outsource security. ... There's a lot of bad press about these private security people, but they save lives. The army,
they'll leave you out to die."
Just a few weeks into his latest stint, Mancini was nursing a new set of grievances. He believed CACI had stiffed him on
his paycheck, and the mortar rounds landing around the Green Zone were starting to wear down his nerves. In July, he
was headhunted by Procurement Services Associates to work as a purchasing manager on behalf of Perini, the company
rebuilding the electricity grid. But on September 23, while he was driving back to Perini's office, a car carrying a Kuwaiti
woman and six children slammed into the back of his Land Rover at 75 miles an hour. The Kuwaiti car rolled three times,
and Mancini was knocked unconscious. When he woke up, he found himself at a hospital reserved for "third-country
nationals" — menial laborers imported to do shitwork. He had a broken ankle, a broken wrist, and contusions to his ribs.
While Mancini cooled his heels in what he calls "the cockroach hospital," he talked on the phone to Travis Williams,
president of the temp agency contracting his services to Perini. According to Mancini, Williams claimed that Mancini had
no medical coverage, despite the fact that federal law requires companies working with the military to guarantee health
insurance. "He goes, 'Ah, you're injured. You didn't sign up for the medical care. What are you gonna do?'" Mancini said.
"I go, 'This was employment-related, this is covered under workman's comp. What are you gonna do?' And then there
was complete silence. And then he said he'd check into it." Williams declined to comment on Mancini's claims.
Perini officials transferred Mancini to a private hospital, but after just a few days, a company representative came to his
bed. "Perini said, 'We gotta get you out now. When the doctor comes in, say I feel good enough to travel,'" Mancini
claims. "I say, 'Well, I don't.' He repeats, 'Tell the doctor you feel good enough to travel, and we're going to get you on a
flight tonight. Otherwise, they're going to put you in prison.'" The implication, Mancini thought, was clear: Kuwaiti
nationals had died in the car wreck, and the government was looking for a scapegoat. Perini employees raced to his
apartment and threw some of his underwear and socks in a gym bag. Another official shoved Mancini in a wheelchair,
flashed a few bills at the hospital staff, got a doctor's note, and pushed him through the exit into an unmarked car. "They
said, 'We can't put you in an ambulance, because we don't want to attract attention,'" he recalls. "A couple of Perini
people said, 'Be careful — they may arrest you.'"
With that, Mancini was on a flight back to the States. At Logan International Airport, he claims, he took a call from
Williams, who said he'd meet Mancini in Phoenix. In the meantime, there was a snafu in the arrangements, and no one
from the company could accompany him. Mancini was left in the airport in a wheelchair, where he used his remaining
cash to pay people to help him on the plane. PSA paid only for economy class, Mancini said, and his injured leg was
jammed down into the cramped seats. When he arrived in Phoenix many hours later, Williams was nowhere to be found.
Instead, his ex-wife, Susan, was waiting; Williams had asked her to handle things from then on.
Susan Mancini, who has worked as a surgical technologist for 25 years, took one look at her ex-husband's leg and took
him to the hospital. Mancini's legs were badly swollen from being crammed into a tight space without being elevated; the
flesh strained against the casts. "His feet were cold, like there was no circulation," she said. "I took him to the emergency
room, and they had to cut both casts off. I was fairly worried. ... He could get blood clots on his legs; he could have
Mancini spent a month in a nursing home, where he was informed that PSA did not have health insurance under the
federal Defense Base Act, which is supposed to cover all civilians working overseas for the military. After working in the
deadliest piece of real estate on Earth on behalf of his country, Mancini was left high and dry. He checked out of the
nursing home, but filed a claim against PSA with the Department of Labor. After months of arbitration, the company
acknowledged that federal law required it to purchase Defense Base Act insurance for its employees, and agreed to pay
all Mancini's medical bills from the time of his accident to March 1, 2005.
Mancini is still fighting with Procurement Services Associates. He claims that he still can't work, and that his former
employer is liable for compensation for as long as his injuries endure. His ex-wife said he has yet to recover from his time
in Iraq and Kuwait. "He's been feeling pretty depressed because he can't work," she said. "His feet are still swollen to,
like, twice their normal size, and he has difficulty walking. He can barely even buy shoes. They're like squares." In a brief
filed with the Department of Labor last month, PSA's attorney David Nolan claims that Mancini's own physician found him
"fit to return to work ... in early April 2005," and that the company is not liable for any further payments. Any claims
otherwise, Nolan wrote, are "the fantasies of the very troubled Mr. Mancini."
In August, Mancini was sitting at home seething when, he claims, he heard from one of the reporters he talked to during
the Halliburton days. "Do you remember how we talked about the story on injured contractors?" T. Christian Miller of the
Los Angeles Times asked in an e-mail forwarded by Mancini. "Well, you can be of help to me now in getting it done." The
Times, Miller wrote, had filed a lawsuit to acquire details of civilian contractors killed or injured in the war, and whether
the federal government was adequately compensating them: "Would you be willing to contact our attorney, and give a
short declaration about your case?"
On August 28, Mancini signed a declaration summarizing his fight with PSA. Miller referred all questions to the
newspaper's public-relations department, which refused to comment. But Karen Henry, an attorney with the firm handling
the lawsuit, confirmed that Mancini was cooperating with the investigation. "We want to get specific information regarding
civilian contractors who have been either killed or injured while in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said.
So once again, Mancini is spilling his guts. No one knows what this new investigation will dig up, but if the federal
government and its private partners have refused to provide medical care for civilians injured in the course of the
occupation, it will be just one more in a long list of scandals. And Mancini will be at the center of it one more time.
On the other hand, Mancini thinks that for all Halliburton's sins, it's still better than the baseline incompetence he saw
among the military. "Yeah, KBR steals," he said. "It steals at least 15 percent. But the military loses 25 percent. Even in
KBR's stealing, they're better than a system where people make more mistakes and screw up more things."
In fact, Mancini has enough bitterness for everyone involved in the Iraq adventure, even the Democrats who took up his
cause. When Mancini asked Waxman's office to help him with his problems with Procurement Services Associates, they
shined him on. "For all that assistance I provided them, they turned a deaf ear to me," he recalls. "Typical politicians, you
know? They were not out to make a change — they wanted to hatchet-job Cheney. I got so frustrated, I don't vote."
As he sits alone in his Arizona house, Mancini has decided that three years of labor, blood, and heat have done little
more than inject poison into the world. "In 2003, when I was in Kuwait, we had some people who were with KBR, and they
went up to Baghdad, and the security situation was much different," he concludes. "People welcomed you with open
arms. ... I think the failure of the US government to rebuild the country, and the fraud and abuse by the army, has
caused all the problems. There are no results. They've spent all this money, but the results are nothing. It's all been
wasted. All they're doing is lining the pockets of American corporations."
WHO CARES !
Celester Hall went to Afghanistan to help the troops and make his fortune. He came back deaf, in
diapers and looking for benefits.
By Margaret Downing Original story here
Published: Thursday, August 11, 2005
He was unconscious and moaning loudly when the medic arrived to find him on the floor of the civilian workers' tent --
officially B-hut No. 13 -- in Afghanistan on November 30 last year. In response to "painful stimulus," all Celester Hall did
was open one eye, his left.
The 53-year-old truck driver from East Texas couldn't answer questions, and no one had seen him fall. There were dried
urine stains on his shorts, but no one knew how long he'd been there.
Hall had gone into the civilian clinic at Bagram Air Force Base three days before, complaining of aching all over and
sweating when it was cold. KBR medic Charles Dusha had given him ibuprofen, extra-strength Tylenol and a
decongestant, and had assigned him to quarters, allowing him to stay in his cot for a few days. Obviously, things had
gotten much worse in a hurry. This was beyond what the medic could handle. They scooped Hall up and took him over to
the U.S. Army's 325th Combat Surgical Hospital.
Sedated, paralyzed and intubated, Hall was placed on a ventilator and taken for a CT scan that didn't show any gross
bleeding or any mass or lesion. They thought he'd had a stroke.
On December 1, Hall was airlifted to Germany, his destination the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Hall had signed on with the Kellogg, Brown & Root/Halliburton subsidiary Service Employees International, Inc. to make
his fortune. But somewhere along the way, in the dusty cab of a supply truck or in his cramped living quarters, his luck
had run out.
At the Landstuhl army post, Hall was diagnosed with strep pneumonia meningitis, aspiration pneumonia and nerve
dysfunction. The inner layers of his brain were inflamed, rendering him totally helpless. Back in Bryan, his wife, Bema
Johnson-Hall, heard of his critical condition through other employees. She called KBR, got a hurry-up passport and
readied herself to join him.
On December 2, Hall was given a lumbar puncture. Doctors stopped sedating him, tried to clear away the cloud of drugs.
His mental status did not improve.
They brought in a neurologist on December 3. Hall wasn't doing any better. He didn't open his eyes to any stimulation.
The next day an anxious Bema was told not to worry about going over to meet her husband; they were sending him
home. On December 5 he was transported to Methodist Hospital in Houston via Air Med International. From there, he
went to Kindred Hospital in Houston, an acute-care facility, and then to the St. Joseph Regional Rehabilitation Center in
Bryan. Along the way, he'd had a feeding tube put in, as well as a tracheotomy to help him breathe.
On February 17 he went home to his house in Bryan.
Celester Hall, a man who had regularly played basketball and baseball and walked for exercise, a man who drove long
distances on his truck routes to help support his wife and their blended family of three teenage children, was now deaf.
His eyes weren't opening. He'd lost his balance. He'd had a stroke.
He had to be catheterized and eventually would graduate to wearing adult diapers. His hearing loss appears to be as
permanent as it is profound. A cochlear implant did nothing to improve the condition -- it just made him more susceptible
to infections, according to his wife.
Before he went overseas, Hall was handed some KBR literature, indicating that he and other contract workers had a
special role to play in the Afghanistan theater.
"KBR employees are not contractors, we are Force Multipliers?We are as close to being soldiers as we can get without
saluting and carrying a gun," the KBR/Halliburton literature reads.
All in all, it was a sorry end to a high-risk gamble.
And it got worse. In the spring, when Bema was standing in a drugstore waiting on one of Celester's prescriptions, she
was told her Cigna group health insurance had been canceled. It was canceled because Celester's employment had
She applied for workers' comp through Service Employees International, Inc. KBR contracts with the insurance company
AIG WorldSource to handle international claims. One of AIG WorldSource's Dallas-based adjusters, Joseph Johnson,
turned her down, writing to her in a letter that Celester wasn't eligible for coverage. She started looking for a lawyer.
By late May, she and her husband were in a Houston courtroom with attorney Lewis Fleishman arguing that SEII should
be covering the medical bills, which by then totaled more than $100,000.
And, as she testified before a Department of Labor administrative law judge, Bema Johnson-Hall had discovered that
December 1 -- the day her husband was hanging on to his life during his nine-hour flight to Germany -- was officially his
last day of employment.
His employer had terminated him, retroactively, to that date.
Celester Hall ended up before a federal administrative law judge because, as a civilian worker supporting the troops, he
is covered under the Defense Base Act, an extension of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, a
special form of workers' comp.
The Defense Base Act provides "compensation for disability or death to persons employed at military, air and naval
bases outside the United States."
To be covered, all a person has to do is show that while he was living or working overseas for a company in support of
the troops, he encountered a disabling illness or injury. No one has to prove negligence, just that the illness or injury
arose from "conditions of employment," Fleishman says.
If a permanent total disability is established, then under the Defense Base Act, the employer's insurance company is
required to pay the person two-thirds of his average weekly salary for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, a lot of overseas civilian workers have no idea the act exists, says Houston attorney Gary Pitts, who
handles several such cases. "The legal requirement is so obscure: a poster in their office," Pitts says. "I've never heard
any of my clients say there was a poster in the Quonset huts or tents.
" Companies do mention the Defense Base Act in their contracts, he says, and if employees ask the companies
specifically about the act's provisions, they don't deny its existence.
In an e-mailed response, Halliburton spokeswoman Melissa Norcross said that "a KBR representative thoroughly explains
the company's health care benefits for employees and their families. The company clearly explains that the Defense
Base Act (DBA) will be provided to every employee. Employees also receive explanations regarding what the DBA is and
how it works."
But according to Pitts, there's been some misinformation handed out at Halliburton job fair meetings. Client Carole
McNair of Houston says she asked what would happen if her husband, Roy, died overseas. Would she be entitled to only
the $25,000 life insurance policy KBR gives its employees? According to her, a KBR representative stood up and said:
"We're working on it, but yes, that's all." (Roy McNair hurt his back in Iraq while working as a KBR truck driver, and a year
and eight months later, the McNairs are still battling with Halliburton over his compensation.)
In reality, if a widow makes a claim during the year after her husband's death, she's entitled to one-half of his salary for
the rest of her life, Pitts says. In response to a question from the Houston Press, KBR acknowledged that there might be
additional payments due a widow in such a case.
A salary of $80,000 a year would mean $40,000 a year to a widow, Pitts says. If she lives 50 years beyond her
husband's death, that would be $2 million. That would be $2 million that the insurer doesn't need to pay out. Lower
payouts means better insurance rates for KBR, Pitts points out.
Not many attorneys like to do Defense Base Act work, according to Pitts. Most clients live in remote areas, making
meetings difficult. The pay, set by the Department of Labor, is below normal billing levels, he says. Many of these cases
drag out for months, although the Department of Labor has recently put them on the fast track. The number of adjusters
in the Dallas office of AIG WorldSource increased from three to seven just recently, Pitts says.
Of course, the attorney and the family get nothing if they lose.
Celester Hall has an 11th-grade education. As court records show, he worked for a local Texas trucking firm in which he
made $6,240 for 15 weeks of work (that works out to $21,632 a year). Afghanistan, with the expectation of $80,000 in
annual pay, meant a better life.Celester Hall ended up before a federal administrative law judge because, as a civilian
worker supporting the troops, he is covered under the Defense Base Act, an extension of the Longshore and Harbor
Workers' Compensation Act, a special form of workers' comp.
He'd already worked for Halliburton in 2003 -- in Kuwait -- but returned when his wife had complications from gastric
bypass surgery. He has relatives among the Afghanistan support workers, so he was ready to try it again.
He lived in a 20- by 35-foot Bravo hut with eight to ten people. Each man carved out about a seven- by nine-foot space
for himself, constructing dividers out of sheets or carpets bought from the bazaar or the PX.
Bagram Air Force Base is surrounded by barbed wire and a minefield with an eight-foot chain-link fence with concertina
wire on top. None of this is any protection against the dust and dryness that cause respiratory problems to last longer
than normal -- the same conditions that wreaked so much havoc on the Soviet army when it battled Afghan fighters for
ten years starting in 1979. According to medical accounts, some 43 percent of the Soviet military had acute pneumonia
during the first year in Afghanistan.
Things hadn't improved much by 2004. In a long-distance deposition in Hall's case, interrupted by a sandstorm, medic
Charles Dusha said he and a nurse were seeing 70 patients a day. He estimated that on base there were 10,000 to
15,000 military personnel and about 1,000 KBR employees and a dozen smaller contractors -- as well as 500 to 1,000
locals doing manual labor.
There is a meningitis vaccine that, according to one leading proponent, Dr. Daniel Musher of Baylor College of Medicine
in Houston, decreases the probability of a serious pneumococcal infection by 60 to 70 percent. But it is not routinely
given out to civilians or by the U.S. Army. Civilian workers do receive immunizations against hepatitis A and B, polio and
KBR's medical facility, at least at Bagram, appeared to be a bit Spartan both in number of medical personnel and space
available. When Celester Hall was brought in, the medic did not perform a spinal tap. Dusha wasn't qualified to do so.
The nurses and doctors at Bagram didn't do one either. According to Dr. Musher, an authority on streptococcus
pneumonia and pneumococcal meningitis, a spinal tap should not be delayed.
Which begs the questions: If Hall had contracted meningitis back in Texas, would the treatment have been better; would
his suffering have been so severe; would he now be deaf?
Attorney Pitts has been representing Gulf war vets for 12 years, suing the companies that sold chemical weapons to
Saddam Hussein. Now he's also representing overseas civilian workers.
He and Lewis Fleishman are friends; both are passionate about the clients they represent, but with different styles. While
Pitts tends to talk in big-picture terms and doesn't hedge too much about his views on the use of civilian contractors,
Fleishman is far more circumspect -- outside the courtroom, anyway -- saying he concentrates on one client at a time,
hoping to work out the best possible relief for each one.
Bema Johnson-Hall likes to recall how when she finally reached Fleishman to tell him her story, he jumped in his car and
drove to Bryan to see her husband. "Lewis doesn't care about the money," she says. "He cares about us."
Pitts seems to share that idealism. As a youth, he went to West Point. He left the academy because he thought the
Vietnam war was unconstitutional. He joined the Army National Guard for 12 years starting in 1975 and rose to the rank
of captain. He supported both the Gulf wars and our entry into Iraq.
Which doesn't mean he likes everything going on there.
"Plainly ridiculous" is how he characterizes some of the maneuvering by companies trying to get out of paying for
overseas civilian workers' illnesses or injuries. Client Mark Baltazar was in a mess hall near Mosul last December when a
suicide bomber blew it up. As a result, Pitts says, Baltazar needs a hearing aid. Pre-employment, the Houston resident
had a moderate loss of hearing at high frequencies but did not require a hearing aid. KBR is refusing to pay, Pitts says.
They are still waiting to have another hearing test scheduled.
A hearing aid costs about $500. Court costs for fighting this case would tend to run $20,000 for the defendant's attorney
and $15,000 for the claimant's lawyer, Pitts says. So why incur these kinds of legal costs for something relatively
Even if KBR or any contractor loses, Pitts says, it doesn't absorb the expense, because it has a cost-plus contract with
the government. KBR will pay the attorneys on both sides "and give the bill to the U.S. government," he says. "The
Asked about this, KBR's Norcross responded: "It is KBR's policy to not discuss corporate expenses related to litigation."
Later she wrote that KBR automatically files a DBA claim with AIG on behalf of any employee injured or killed while
working on a government project overseas. "It is not up to KBR to accept or deny an employee's claim?the responsibility
for the claim is transferred wholly to AIG and is no longer under KBR's purview."
With so few attorneys willing to take on these cases, self-insured companies -- as well as ones like KBR that contract out
their insurance -- stand to win often when they refuse payment, Pitts says.
"The people they're screwing here are the widows and children of heroes who are going over there to support the war
effort," Pitts says.
The parent company AIG is the target of several regulatory inquiries -- the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
has been investigating it, for one -- but AIG WorldSource spokesman Joe Norton says none of these investigations
involve his subsidiary. He also denies that his company tries to get out of its responsibilities by fighting claims it should
Just because a company files a so-called controversion, that doesn't mean it's necessarily ducking its responsibilities,
according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It may mean that it's just making sure that it doesn't face any penalties for not
filing a form in time, according to one official who did not want to be named.
Pitts says it's true that sometimes companies will withdraw their controversions. But when they don't and it involves
someone being hurt overseas, the worker receives nothing while waiting for the case to be settled, he says.
"I've had people going on welfare. I've had grown men moving in with their mothers. They become homeless," he says.
Not giving them anything while the case is pending is another way, he says, that a company can pressure a former
employee to settle out of court for less money.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of August 4, there have been 3,603 Defense Base Act claims filed by
workers of all nationalities through July 27 out of Iraq (of which 116 are deaths). The Texas portion of this was 625
claims, of which 19 are deaths.
Pitts doesn't think civilian workers should be used in our present conflicts in the Middle East.
"Somebody in the Pentagon had the bright idea during the cold war called 'outsourcing' for the military," Pitts says. By
bringing in support workers, the trained soldier would be freed up to do his primary job of fighting and defense. Also, it
would be more economical to do it this way, since you wouldn't have all these support units sitting around during
"But this only makes sense if there are front lines and you have a conventional war and a short war. Nobody planned for
Support personnel should be armed and trained to defend themselves if we're going to be in a longtime guerrilla war,
Pitts says. "In the traditional army, the privates do the truck driving. It's less expensive and more efficient to handle in a
traditional way if we're going to face the reality of extended conflicts."
Of course, to do this would probably mean reinstating the draft, Pitts says.
"It appears the American people are more willing to pay unarmed truck drivers $80,000 a year and hit the streets in Iraq
without any weapons to defend themselves than to face the reality of common sacrifice that is a draft."
KBR's Norcross wrote that the use of civilian workers to drive trucks, deliver water and fuel, cook meals, wash laundry
and deliver mail was a "public policy" decision, "best left to government authorities."
"KBR employees and subcontractors?understand the dangers and difficult conditions involved in working in a war zone
and have made courageous decisions to deliver the services necessary to support the troops."
Security for KBR employees is provided by the U.S. military, she wrote, adding that all KBR truck drivers are intensively
trained in defensive and evasive driving techniques and how to check for bombs.
Inside a courtroom on the seventh floor of the Federal Building, Celester Hall sits quietly at the plaintiff's table, his rolling
walker to his left. The black cochlear implant is visible on the right side of his head.
Officially, his suit is against SEII and the Insurance Co. of the State of Pennsylvania, an underwriting company with
American International Group. KBR/Halliburton is out of it, not considered an employer for purposes of the lawsuit.
Attorney Fleishman says he doesn't care whose name is on the suit as long as someone steps up to pay Hall his due.
The atmosphere in the courtroom is amiable. On May 20 some stipulations were signed; SEII has accepted this as a
"compensable case," meaning SEII or its insurance carrier is going to do something for Hall.
"We absolutely want to get Mr. Hall what he needs," says John Schouest, a Phelps Dunbar attorney representing SEII.
His questions concern the amount of improvement Hall has made so far and what can be expected in the future. He
argues that a re-evaluation is in order.
Fleishman points out that so far SEII's track record has been "abysmal" in terms of taking care of Hall, but he welcomes
the change in attitude. He recites a list of needs, among them: home health care attendant, prescription medicine,
another cochlear implant and physical therapy.
His client has third nerve palsy in his eye, balance problems, ophthalmologic needs, urologic infections and mileage
payments for medical care, Fleishman continues. They are here because there were no responses to earlier letters to
SEII asking for help in paying the bills, Fleishman tells Judge Clement J. Kennington.
He points to a chart, written by Baylor's Dr. Musher. On it, Musher, recognized as a leading authority on infectious
diseases, has listed common factors that lead to streptococcal pneumonia and meningitis: stress, fatigue, dust and
overcrowding. They mirror Celester Hall's experience in Afghanistan.
Hall peers at a computer monitor. Since he can't hear, a specially retained court reporter types out the attorneys'
questions, which appear on a screen before him.
Finally, he takes the stand. He's 54 now. Never got his GED. In his thirties he switched from working construction to
Since his treatment for meningitis, he's had some improvement to his vision, but it's not right yet.
"I kind of get double vision when you go to my left?I see like two. I'm not getting a real good focus," he explains while
Fleishman waves a pen in front of him, asking him to track it.
His balance is still off. "I can't hold a steady line when I walk."
He's still having bladder problems. "I haven't been able to hold my urine all the time." He's had continued bladder
infections. He wears Depends. He's been shown how to catheterize himself but isn't especially good at it, so mostly his
wife does it.
And now he's got sores coming out on his head.
He uses a Fisher-Price children's wipe board to communicate with his wife. He can't drive.
His wife tells a similar story when it's her turn to testify. Bema Johnson-Hall will have been married to Celester for five
years this coming October. On the witness stand she describes their life since Afghanistan.
Every morning she gets Celester breakfast, helps him dress and goes off to work, which is only minutes away. She
returns around noon to bring him lunch. After she gets off at 5 p.m., she gets him dinner and then goes off to her second
job, where she works till 9 p.m.
Then on Saturdays she goes to her third job, covering phones in a real estate office. She has to do this to pay the
mounting bills, to pay for the prescription drugs out of her own pocket. They go through a bag of adult diapers every two
Her husband suffers from depression. "He doesn't want to eat. He cries. He says he doesn't want to live anymore," she
says. Since the cochlear implant doesn't work, he feels worse. She'd like to have him get psychological counseling. "He's
always been a cheerful person."
When Celester was in Afghanistan he was usually on a water truck as an escort, and one of the Afghan men drove. The
trip was 40 minutes out and 40 minutes back, not counting the time it took to dump the water at a site provided for by the
military. He was riding with one Afghan who was really sick for about a week.
It was crowded and dusty inside the hut. It was always dirty. They kept it cold to discourage the rats and spiders from
coming in through the cracks along the electric pipes. He bought masks from the store.
His work schedule was seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Critics say SEII was incorporated in the Cayman Islands to
get around U.S. labor laws. No overtime is paid. KBR says it does comply with U.S. law, but different standards apply with
overseas incorporation and they -- just like other companies -- pay straight time for work in excess of 40 hours per week.
When Celester first got sick, the medic told him it might have been due to the elevation and that he didn't drink enough
He starts crying on the witness stand when he tells about first seeing his wife in the hospital. He didn't know where he
was; Bema got a writing board and told him all the things that had happened to him.
He shows the sore in the middle of his stomach where they put in the feeding tube. It hasn't quite healed. His wife
replaces the bandages. He has burning and pain in his hands and feet.
Most days he sits at home, where he reads his Bible. He can't answer the phone. He went to church on Easter Sunday
but hasn't gone much since because he can't hear anything. His wife helps him bathe or shower.
Asked what he wants by the attorney for his former employer, Hall says he wants to be restored.
"Help me get better so I can enjoy life. I miss a lot of things?I used to be able to play sports, and now I can hardly walk."
Civilian worker Sam Walker was in the KBR chow hall at Camp Merez in Iraq when a suicide bomber blew up the place,
killing 22 people and injuring more than 50 others on December 21, 2004. Walker suffered shrapnel wounds to his hand,
head and leg. He picked bits of flesh off himself after the explosion. He's being seen by a psychologist for post-traumatic
He hasn't received any benefits from KBR.
The 43-year-old has problems with anxiety, sleep disturbance and hypervigilance, Pitts says.
Rates of PTSD among those serving in Iraq are much higher than from the first Gulf war, Pitts says. "The first was a war
that lasted six weeks, and only three days were a ground war. This is a chronic guerrilla war, no front line. The first war
had a front line. There are a lot more soldiers that are actually having to engage in house-to-house fighting and actually
shooting the enemy and seeing them."
The U.S. Army counsels people before they leave the theater of war, Pitts says. It has instituted a policy of following up
after they return to the States. There's been a learning curve since Vietnam.
The civilian contract workers who are exposed to the war zone don't have the same treatment, Pitts says.
A country goes to war, and it recruits young people to fight for it. In the case of civilian workers, however, the average
age tends to be higher.
"You want the demographics on some of my clients?" asks Pitts, leafing through his files. He finds a 64-year-old truck
driver, another man who's 63, another 58. "The average age is significantly older than those in the military."
Bema Johnson-Hall met her future husband through a friend of her brother's. At first, she wouldn't go out with him. A year
later she agreed to start dating. A while after that, they got married.
Celester's world had been pretty much restricted to East Texas and Houston, she says. "He really hadn't had a whole lot
of things in life." She had always traveled, and they started going places together. They dreamed of buying their own
home for themselves and their children -- her son, now 15, from her first marriage and Celester's 15-year-old daughter
and 13-year-old son from his.
Bema was taking nursing classes but had to drop out when everything went so wrong with her husband, she says. She
doesn't know when she'll get back.
Two months after his court hearing, some things have improved for Celester and Bema. They were disappointed to find
out the May 31 hearing didn't settle anything -- a mediation was tentatively scheduled for August 11, and a post-hearing
brief is due to the court on August 15 -- but now at least there is some money coming in.
In late June, Bema says, they got temporary total disability benefits for Celester retroactive to December 1. He receives
two-thirds of his average salary for the previous year, or about $500 a week from the insurer. She has been able to cut
back to just two jobs: her full-time day job and some part-time billing on the side.
Attorney Fleishman expects the case to be decided sometime late this year or early in 2006, and at that point the
administrative law judge will enter a ruling determining whether the insurance company will have to pay Celester. The
payments right now are voluntary, he says.
Bema is back in touch with Joseph Johnson of AIG WorldSource (he returned a phone call from the Press and referred
all questions to his company's New York corporate spokesman), who is in charge of authorizing coverage for them for
things like doctor's visits, physical therapy and medicines. She has asked for help in the home. She says Johnson said
they had to have an assessment in the home by a case manager, which was done, but after three weeks, nothing has
The care and love are obvious as she bathes her husband, soaping his head and body while he sits in the bathtub. She
still catheterizes him, and the new routine of her life includes frequent doctor visits. The signs of wear are there in her
voice. She needs some help. Occasionally she raises one finger in front of Celester. That means she's just one person,
working as fast as she can.
Celester says he gets nothing but "a real low kind of static, like a broken speaker" from his cochlear implant. He wears
the diapers less frequently now but still needs them for longer trips out, such as doctor's visits. He still navigates by
Doctors have said it'll be one and a half to three years before they can determine what he's really going to be like, Bema
Deposition testimony from medical experts was not encouraging.
Dr. Kelly Loeb of Central Texas Rehabilitation Medicine in Bryan, who saw Celester as an outpatient and who does
physicals for the Department of Transportation, gave Celester a poor prognosis for returning to work as a truck driver.
Dr. Newton Jasper Coker of Houston, who examined Celester for his auditory problems, said Celester had no hearing, a
complete loss at all levels. Even if the cochlear implant suddenly started working, Celester would not hear normally.
Celester, he said, would not be able to ride a bike or perform any complex activities.
Dr. George Burnazian, an infectious disease specialist in Houston, said: "Well, I think that this man is, in my opinion,
crippled by this episode."
Ginny Stegent, a registered nurse for 32 years, is a life-care planner for Med-Legal Services. Her job is to look at a
disability and put a price tag on it. She interviewed the Halls five and a half months after he became ill.
"Mrs. Hall said he will speak of things that did not happen?Mrs. Hall says he cries and feels he is shut off in a world by
himself," Stegent testified. She recounted an episode in which Celester called his wife by cell phone to come back to the
house. He didn't want her to leave.
"My husband's been through so much," Bema says. "This almost cost us everything we own. The only reason they're
paying now is because I got an attorney."
She still has several relatives over in the Middle East, hanging on to civilian jobs. She says Celester told her that the
Americans need to be gone from there.
"He said, 'We are going to a country that doesn't care anything about us. What I think is we need to pull out and let those
people have their country back.'"
The overseas venture, Bema says, "was supposed to be all this money and tax-free" for them. Because Celester didn't
stay the minimum 330 days outside the country, he loses the tax-free provision under U.S. law.
She married Celester because he was "helpful and very loving, a family man and people person." She talks often about
the smile he always had.
These days he's become querulous and suspicious, frustrated and dependent on others. Bema says all she hears from
his former employer and its representatives is that they want to get Celester back on his feet and back to work. "We're
talking about somebody's life," she says in frustration.
It's clear, though, that the life they dreamed about, and the people they were once upon a time, aren't going to happen
again. They're just trying to make the best of what they have left.
Wounded in war, ill-treated at home
By STEPHEN LOSEY
May 05, 2008 read original story here
This is what Mike Helms got for serving his government in Iraq: An armful of shrapnel. Traumatic brain injury that left him
changed and damaged the relationships he had before the war. And almost no help in getting the medical treatment he
The federal government is not doing enough to help some civilian employees wounded while deployed to Iraq and
Afghanistan, the House Armed Services Committee said in a new report.
Civilian employees like Helms, a counterintelligence specialist, do not fall under the military disability system. Their
injuries aren’t covered by their usual health insurance but by workers’ compensation.
But the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs is not equipped to handle civilians’ wartime
claims, the committee said.
OWCP does not adjudicate combat wounds any differently than workplace injuries, the committee said in its report,
“Deploying Federal Civilians to the Battlefield: Incentives, Benefits and Medical Care.” But, claims officers aren’t trained
to recognize unique combat injuries; claims processing is paper-based and “antiquated,” and injured federal employees
have little support when trying to prove they were wounded at war, the report said.
“Do they have to become a workers’ comp expert from Day One to get treatment?” asked committee chairman Rep. Vic
Some wounded civilians are not allowed access to the military medical facilities that are doing the latest research on
prosthetics, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, Snyder said.
Helms has been battling OWCP and the Defense Department to get treatment since he was caught in a roadside
bombing outside of Samarra, Iraq, in June 2004. Helms, who is assigned to the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group,
was stationed in the dangerous Sunni Triangle area in December 2003 to help collect intelligence on insurgent
He lived and fought much like the soldiers he served with in units like the Army’s 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division and
often manned a Humvee’s M60 turret gun during convoys. But after he was wounded, Defense started treating him
differently from the soldiers.
Helms was medically evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington two weeks after the bombing, but
Walter Reed wouldn’t admit him at first because he was a civilian. Helms — who said he was on “unbelievable amounts”
of the painkiller Percocet at the time and was in no shape to argue on his behalf — was admitted only after the military
driver of his bombed Humvee and the driver’s wife fought for him.
After a month, Helms said the driver was discharged and Helms had to leave Walter Reed. After returning to Fort Knox,
Ky., the Ireland Army Community Hospital there likewise refused to see Helms.
“When you’re so drugged up and so at a loss because you spent two months trying everything you can to get support
from the government, you start going, ‘Whatever, I can’t fight this anymore,’” Helms said.
So Helms started pursuing workers’ compensation. But he said Labor provided him no help navigating the complicated
workers’ comp system, and said several of his treatments at local hospitals were denied because OWCP didn’t recognize
the condition or because someone wrote down the wrong treatment code number. Since then, he’s had to argue his way
out of several bills from his treatments at Ireland and other civilian medical facilities — some as high as $15,000. Those
bills would have been taken care of by Tricare if he had been a service member.
Helms got back into Ireland Army Community Hospital for TBI treatments only after Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon
England wrote a memo Sept. 24 that said civilian employees wounded in a war zone are to receive the same treatment
as uniformed service members.
But by then, it was too late for treatment. Helms was told recently that his brain damage is permanent, and the time for
treatment was in the first two years after his injury.
“What’s done is done,” Helms said. “It’s only going to decline from here.”
Helms, 32, is already dealing with irritability, insomnia, fear of crowds, digestive problems, short-term memory loss, and
other conditions that he said have “torn apart my personal life.”
He said he pulled away from his friends because they don’t understand what he’s going through and why he has
changed, and dating is difficult.
“I started with some [women] not saying anything and trying to be positive,” Helms said. “I tried telling some upfront. That
didn’t work either. The issues always come out on their own, and it’s hard to find someone really willing to listen or be
understanding to the situation.”
Helms still works long days at the 902nd at Fort Knox. He said he gets paid for six hours by the Army and two hours by
workers’ comp. But he said he still often works longer days without extra pay because he feels compelled to by the needs
of his office.
The House Armed Services Committee said in its report that Defense should assign a caseworker to each civilian who is
wounded while deployed and it should give all wounded civilian employees access to military medical facilities. OWCP
should form a special office to process wartime claims and have employees who know how to handle claims involving
combat wounds, the committee said.
The Pentagon didn’t comment, saying it is still reviewing the committee’s report.
Snyder said the report is only the beginning of an effort to understand the problem. He said he’s not now planning
legislation to address these issues, but he has asked the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to review
the report’s recommendations that fall under its jurisdiction.
For his part, Helms doesn’t expect much to change any time soon because of the committee’s report.
“Everything that was stated in the report was recommendations,” Helms said. “There’s nothing that says, ‘This must be
After Helms spoke to Federal Times on May 1, he returned home to find yet another bill from the government — this one
for $2,500 for his latest TBI test at a private medical facility that contracted with Ireland.
“Once again, I begin this process of justifying my existence to the U.S. government,” Helms wrote in an e-mail. “It never
| Defense Base Act Workman's Compensation
Soldiers of Misfortune
Just how little your life and limb are worth.......