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COLUMN ONE

'They are the unappreciated patriots'

In Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors like Reggie Lane often face the same dangers as U.S. troops. And make the same terrible sacrifices.

October 06, 2009|T. Christian Miller

CENTRAL POINT, ORE. — A nurse rocked him awake as pale dawn light crept into the room. "C'mon now, c'mon," the nurse murmured. "Time to get up."

Reggie Lane was once a hulking man of 260 pounds. Friends called him "Big Dad." Now, he weighed less than 200 pounds and his brain was severely damaged. He groaned angry, wordless cries.

The nurse moved fast. Two bursts of deodorant spray under each useless arm. Then he dressed Lane and used a mechanical arm to hoist him into a wheelchair.

He wheeled Big Dad down a hallway and parked the chair in a beige dining room, in front of a picture window. Outside stretched a green valley of pear trees filled with white blossoms.

Lane's head fell forward, his chin buried in his chest. His legs crossed and uncrossed involuntarily. His left index finger was rigid and pointed, as if frozen in permanent accusation.

In 2004, Lane was driving a fuel truck in Iraq for a defense contractor when insurgents attacked his convoy with rocket-propelled grenades. For most of the five years since, Lane, now 60, has spent his days in silence -- a reminder of the hidden costs of relying on civilian contract workers to support the U.S. war effort.

His wife, Linda, said visiting her husband was difficult. They were childhood friends and fiercely loyal to each other. On this spring morning, she caressed his hand and told him she loved him.

"He was a good man. He paid his bills. He took care of his family," she said, her breathing labored from a pulmonary disease. "He's a human being who fought for his country. He doesn't deserve to be thrown away."

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In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has depended on contract workers more than in any previous conflict -- to cook meals for troops, wash laundry, deliver supplies and protect diplomats, among other tasks. Tens of thousands of civilians have worked in the two battle zones, often facing the same dangers as U.S. troops and suffering the same kinds of injuries.

Contract workers from the U.S. have been mostly men, primarily middle-aged, many of them military veterans drawn by money, patriotism or both, according to interviews and public records. They are police officers, truck drivers, firefighters, mechanics and craftsmen, mostly from rural corners of America, especially the South.

Nearly 1,600 civilian workers -- both Americans and foreign nationals -- have died in the two war zones. Thousands more have been injured. (More than 5,200 U.S. service members have been killed and 35,000 wounded.)

Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops.

There are no veterans' halls for civilian workers, no Gold Star Wives, no military hospitals. Politicians pay little attention to their problems, and the military has not publicized their contributions.

"These guys are like the Vietnam vets of this generation," said Lee Frederiksen, a psychologist who worked for Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago-based firm that provides counseling for war zone workers. "The normal support that you would get if you were injured in the line of duty as a police officer or if you were injured in the military . . . just doesn't exist."

Herbert J. Lanese, former chief executive of DynCorp International, one of the largest employers of civilian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "These are people who have given their lives in the service of our country. They are the unappreciated patriots of our country at this point in time."

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Lane was born in Ventura and moved to Grants Pass, Ore., when he turned 12. He met Linda there, and the two grew up together.

After high school, Reggie enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam. He and Linda found each other after he returned. By then, each had been married and divorced, and each had a child.

As a pair, they were inseparable. Reggie was steady, strong. Linda was energetic and outgoing. They eventually found work as a truck-driving team, steering tractor-trailers across the country.

His CB radio handle was "Grizzly." Hers was "Wild Cat." He loved country music and Tom Clancy novels, G. Gordon Liddy's talk show and Honda motorcycles. She loved the open road, the speed of the truck.

"We went to see the big wide world driving a truck. What an adventure," Linda recalled.

But work was haphazard, and the pay was modest. Together, they made about $32,000 a year. They had a hard time keeping up with bills and twice filed for bankruptcy.

In the late 1990s, they sold their home in Oregon and moved to Montana, where land was cheaper.

In the fall of 2003, Linda heard that defense contractor KBR Inc. was hiring truck drivers to deliver fuel, food and supplies for the military in Iraq. The salary was $88,000 a year, more than they had ever earned.

"We wouldn't be on easy street," Linda said. "But we wouldn't be stressed."

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