Are we ashamed of contractors killed in action?

We've been slow to recognize the sacrifices made by contractors working in warzones. One small group, led by two cops who have served, is trying to change that; however, it still begs the question, when will contractors get the recognization they deserve?

At the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was obvious that contractors would play a historically large role in how those wars were waged.

Once the traditional war fighting was over, contractors were increasingly at risk as they drove convoys, worked as trainers for police forces and were exposed to suicide bombers and other threats.

Sometime around 2010, or maybe a little earlier, the tide turned, and more contractors were being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan than were military personnel.

Finding hard numbers is difficult. In late 2010, a report came out from George Washington University law professor Steven Schooner, and his student at the time, Collin Swan, that put the 2010 death toll at 232 contractors and 195 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, and 204 contractors and 188 troops killed in Iraq.

I’ve struggled to find reliable numbers covering 2011 and 2012.

Recently, I’ve written about a group of DynCorp employees and a PAE Group employee who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were honored with Defense of Freedom medals given by the Defense Department. They were U.S. police officers working in theater to train Afghan and Iraqi police forces as part of a State Department contract.

Lockheed Martin also built a wall at its headquarters to honor employees killed in action.

I’m writing about it again because I had lunch this week with officials from the CivPol Alumni Association, an all-volunteer group whose members served as law enforcement trainers working with police forces overseas, primarily in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

They were responsible for pushing for the Defense of Freedom medals. This is not a sophisticated, high powered lobbying group. Mark Lewis, president, and Peter Tragni, vice president, are full-time police officers. The executive assistant and Lewis’ wife, Susan Brune, works full-time for a Washington state school system.

But through their determination, they convinced Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to write last year to then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, urging that more than 20 contractor police trainers receive the Defense of Freedom Medal.

The letter got the process untracked for that group, but the challenge remains to make recognition and support for those killed and wounded part of a routine process. It shouldn’t take a letter from a senator to get the wheels rolling each time.

CivPol’s ultimate goal is broader than the medals. They want to develop into a resource for the government, contractors and individuals who want to work overseas as trainers and advisors. They have ideas about vetting people for the proper skills, providing training and helping with post deployment transitions.

There is no safety net for returning contractors. Tragni told me the story of how he left Iraq after a year, and arrived home on a Monday. On Thursday, he was back to work at the police department, incredulous that no one was trying to kill him as he drove down the street.

Lewis story is even more amazing. He severely injured his hip and pelvis after being targeted by the Kosovo mafia. They rammed his car with a bus. He spent months recovering with no income, and had to fight to get his U.S. job back.

Few people the group meets with, whether they be congressional staffers or State Department officials, disagree or object to their goals, but little action results.

I could sense their frustration as we talked.

But aside from the challenges CivPol faces, I think the group’s struggles illustrate the mixed feelings we have as a nation about contractors working in warzones.

The knee jerk reaction from some quarters is that we shouldn’t have contractors there in the first place. Contractors are just war profiteers, and don’t deserve further consideration than their too-high paychecks.

But that’s just wrong. I’ve had too many conversations with too many contractors about the importance of the government’s mission, and about how personally committed they are to that mission. I believe them. Many are former military or had careers in government service. Their careers are built around the government’s mission, both civilian and military.

Besides, the government can’t meet its increasingly complex missions without contractor support, whether it is training police officers in foreign lands, or collecting and analyzing intelligence.

I’m not sure what the ultimate solution should be, but recognizing the sacrifices that individual contractors make is a good first step.

Contractors who have served in warzones deserve our thanks, and for those who have been killed or wounded, the Defense of Freedom Medal is a small token of gratitude.