Phil Nerges
Contractor's Memorial

October 27, 2011

When President Obama announced the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, a series of images flashed through my memory.  I pondered 9/11, my brother’s deployments to Iraq as an Army nurse, my own twenty months there as a contractor, and my nephew’s deployment as an interpreter.  Between us, we left with three very different impressions of the country and the war. 

I live in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan.  The twin towers seemed a permanent fixture of the skyline.  You could hardly take a picture of Manhattan without them in it.  On 9/11, I watched the smoke rise across the river.  My son worked at the World Financial Center, opposite the towers, but hadn’t left for work yet when the planes struck.  Most people in the tri-state area knew somebody who worked there.  The attack seemed personal.  It seems odd now, but I remember the beautiful weather almost as much as the attack.    

I read a definition of terrorism once, describing it as violence committed with the intent of drawing media attention to a cause.  They couldn’t have picked a better spot to strike on 9/11, the media capital of the world.  The towers fell, while the world watched, and most people felt someone ought to pay for what happened. 

For my brother, an army intensive-care nurse, the war was a stream of casualties.  He’s been assigned to posts marking the different stages of military life over his career, from basic training camps, to the Combat Support Hospitals of Iraq, to the intensive care wards of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.  He remembers Walter Reed as the most difficult assignment of all.  It’s one thing to stabilize wounded soldiers for a day or two in a Combat Support Hospital, quite another to care for them during the agonizing months that follow, as stunned family members arrive, often in shock, and utterly unprepared for what has been handed to them; how they would ever cope?  Outrage to follow.  He told me of seeing a toddler trying to pat the newly disfigured face of his father, to comfort him.  My brother avoids discussing the ugly things.  Maybe he should talk about them, write about them.  Hemingway did; his convalescence in a military hospital inspired much of what he wrote. 

For me, the war was a series of trips between camps, Camps Cedar, Victory, Slayer, Anaconda, Speicher, Scania, others.  The war was an endless line of trucks delivering supplies to the camps, food, fuel, generators, building materials, living containers, and bringing broken things back with them, wreckage of all description, but things that rolled mostly.  I remember the anguish of truck drivers who lost friends out on MSR Tampa.  The dust obsessed me.  At one point I wrote, “every  wheel, eighteen on most trucks, milled the dried mud from the earth; the dust rose upwards to form a great wall that moved with the wind.” For two years, I wrote reports about the work contractors did, bureaucrat stuff, and had the opportunity to travel widely and meet to all sorts of people.  I learned what my limitations were, that I’m not a warrior, but I met people who truly were, both soldiers and civilians, some of them the bravest people I’ve ever met. 

For my sister’s son, an army interpreter, the war was a stream of words, of hearing both sides, of stories about Saddam’s brutality, and of chats with everyday people.  He remembers one conversation more than all the others, the day he translated a screaming match between the enraged and terrified family of an insurgent killed by the Americans, and the angry soldiers the insurgent had ambushed.  “I could go to school more than a hundred years,” he told me, “and still not learn more about life than I did during one year in Iraq.”   To him, the war was many things, good and bad, conflicting interests, revenge, courage.     

So, how do we put these matters behind us?  If—they are behind us.  We get to come home and sort them out, but the Iraqis must stay.  What happens next depends on their ability to take advantage of the opportunities before them.  In 1990, an Iraq without Saddam seemed improbable.  Now, he’s gone.  The Iraqis have been feuding, off and on, for as long as the land’s been there.  They call it Cradle of Civilization, so there’s a certain irony to their perpetual strife.  Perhaps it’s their destiny.  We’ll see.  But I wish them success.  

Lanterloon October 2011


Thoughts Regarding a National Contractor’s Memorial

New York Times reporter Rod Nordland recently wrote that civilian contractor deaths in Afghanistan now exceed the number of soldiers killed. The article citing US Department of Labor data details 430 contractors killed during 2011, in comparison to 418 soldiers. 

Click to read the full article:
Afghan War Risks Shift from Soldiers to Contractors

Many believe the casualty numbers are actually higher.  Nordland also noted, “Most of the contractors die unheralded and uncounted—and in some cases, leave their survivors uncompensated.”  

The article highlights the growing public awareness of workers being killed while performing jobs formerly done by soldiers, and as the employee casualties rise, so does the number of people who believe the contribution of these workers should be recognized.      

Many television newscasts display the faces of military personnel killed each week.  They display a picture of the fallen, along with their service branch, age, and hometown.  Contractors killed in the same period are not shown.   Under this system, an attack resulting in the deaths of five soldiers and eight contractors yields a death toll of five.  I do not interpret this as an example of media bias toward contractors, but as something resulting from a wider confusion about the purpose and role of contractors in the war zone.  (The word contractor is used here to mean the employees of military contracting firms)

There are many questions.  Who are these contractors?  What do they do?  Are they like soldiers?  Why does our government use them?  Should we use them?  Should we use foreign workers?   If workers are paid for their services, does that make them mercenaries?  If they become casualties of war, what, if anything, do we owe them?  We have used contractors in every war since the American Revolution and yet these questions are still debated.    

Major Mark Hubbs, US Army Reserve (Retired) explored many of these questions in a 2001 article for US Naval Institute detailing the 1943 massacre (by Japanese soldiers) of ninety eight civilian construction workers captured during the fall of Wake Island, December 1941.   He described the men’s twenty-two month ordeal that ended with their death by machine-gunning and burial in a mass grave.  The incident remained unknown until 1945.  He noted initially the memorial for these men consisted of a message chiseled into a boulder at the site: “98 US PW, 5-10-43.”  The rock is now known as the POW Rock.  “No national acknowledgement of the Wake Island massacre ever materialized.”   Hubbs went on to add:

As I stood by POW Rock that first time, I was overcome by sorrow. Here an anonymous American chiseled a brief but poignant message that has come to symbolize the sacrifice of all 98 men. Nearby, the Morrison-Knudsen Company has erected a simple bronze tablet that lists the names of the 98. As I sat on a coral rock and looked at the tablet, I wondered if anyone back home remembers these men. Their parents have long since passed on, but are brothers, sisters, sons or daughters still living who remember their relatives? I wondered how often someone might think of these and honor their sacrifice. How long has it been since someone even uttered their names? Without deliberation, and without ceremony, I read each name from the tablet aloud.

Retired Navy Captain Bill Wynne who served as Officer in Charge of Construction (OICC) during the Viet Nam War also thought we should honor the sacrifices of workers killed supporting US troops, not only Americans, but the foreign workers too.  “I think we should have a memorial for all of them,” he said, “a book, maybe, remembering everybody and the country they came from.  I worked with those people for years.  Later, I heard they (the North Vietnamese) shot them down like dogs after we left.  It makes me sad to think about it.”

Click here to read the interview: 
Navy Captain Managed War Contractors

Whether the contractors died in a massacre on Wake Island, after the fall of Saigon, or on the highways of Iraq, we should acknowledgement their contributions and the dangers they faced.  Their efforts came at great personal risk.  We have memorials to honor our fallen soldiers, law officers, firefighters, and one for fishermen.  All too often, contractors die anonymously and are remembered by few, families, friends, co-workers for the most part.     

There is growing support for the creation of a memorial to honor our contractors.  That support comes from within the military itself, the contracting community, and especially among families who have lost loved ones.  I think we owe it to them.  It’s a matter of respect. 

Lanterloon October 2011

Remembering April 9, 2004

 In early April 2004, the following words appeared in the Daily Kos a widely-read political blog about four Blackwater employees killed and mutilated by a mob in Fallujah on 31 March:


"Let the people see what war is like. This isn't an Xbox game. There are real repercussions to Bush's folly. That said, I feel nothing over the death of merceneries [sic]. They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them."

 I remember this post specifically because my lady friend at the time quoted it to discourage me from accepting a contracting position in Iraq.  “Don't you see what kind of people these are?” she asked.  “Are you gonna risk your life to work for people like that?”  Then, her thoughts shifted to the families of the men.  “How does a family ever get over something like that?” 

 The blog post had the effect of lumping in everyone who works for military contractors together, and it does raise a question:  what kind of men and women work for military contractors?  I am referring to the truck drivers, skilled workers, security teams and administrative employees, not the companies that employ them. 

 An incident that followed less than two weeks later provides an answer that question.  On April 9, 2004, insurgents ambushed a fuel convoy near Baghdad International Airport killing six truck drivers and two soldiers, all Americans.  The event triggered a series of debates, both in and out of Congress, about the role of civilian workers in the war zone.  Since then, a variety of statements and articles about the attack have appeared on the internet. 

 In 2007, an article written by T. Christian Miller, appeared in the Los Angeles Times, titled Iraq convoy was sent out despite threat - Unarmored trucks carrying needed supplies were ambushed, leaving six drivers dead. Records illuminate the fateful decision.   He described the April 9, 2004 attack and the litigation that followed.    The management decision to continue convoy movements in light of warnings about ongoing attacks was a main issue.  Miller quoted statements about the road conditions that week, of seventy convoy attacks:  


"One of my convoys was hit with 14 mortars, 6 RPGs, 5 IEDs and small arms fire," Richard wrote April 7. Senior KBR management in Iraq suspended travel, with Richard telling one colleague in an e-mail that the roads were "too dangerous."


Vivid reports came in from the field. "We are taking on gun fire, mortared, rocket launch, small arms fire you name it, we got it, we are losing trucks one by one. . . my driver and I were lucky to get out alive."

The management explanation for continuing convoy operations: 

“Supplies urgently needed at Baghdad's airport, dwindling fuel supplies threatened to idle two military divisions, according to the Army report. Military commanders called for 200,000 gallons of jet fuel to be rushed from Camp Anaconda.”

The drivers would have known about that need.  They would not have known specifically what waited for them on the airport road, but they would have been aware of ongoing convoy attacks because the intelligence used by Army and security management came directly from the convoys, the drivers, the convoy commanders, and their military escorts.  They drove those roads every day.  So why would they drive on April 9, knowing that?  Because the bases needed the fuel.   How many of us would willingly take such risks knowing what those drivers knew?  Miller quotes Hamill:

 Hamill was not one to second-guess orders -- whatever they were. "When I went over there, I said: 'I won't refuse to go out on a mission as long as the U.S. Army is willing to escort me out,' " he said. "If they didn't want to go out, then I wouldn't go out."

Click here, to read the full article.

 I use the Hamill quote because it expresses the thinking of many.   Hundreds of drivers thought that way, both Americans and foreign nationals, at the risk of their lives.  That same thinking echoed among the workers at the bases too.  Rocket and mortar attacks were part of daily life for workers during the first four years of the war, and yet they stayed on, most for wages far less than what is popularly believed.     

 By now, more than two thousand contractors have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, men and women, Americans and foreign nationals.  We have a memorial to honor law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty, and one for fallen firefighters.   The Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial remembers the thousands of fishermen lost at sea.   We should pause to remember our contractors, and consider a memorial for them too. 

 It would be fitting for Congress to take the lead on this; they control the military’s use of contractors; they write the regulations controlling how it is done; and they provide the funding to do it.  If not Congress , those who care should.  We don’t need a consensus to do this, only a few who care.,  7 October 2011


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