The War's Quiet Scandal
As the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan nears 1,000, T. Christian Miller reports on the worrisome suicide rates of private contractors—and how the system abandons them.
By T. Christian Miller, ProPublica
REDDING, Calif. — Wade Dill does not figure into the toll of war dead. An exterminator, Dill took a job in Iraq for a company contracted to do pest control on military bases. There, he found himself killing disease-carrying flies and rabid dogs, dodging mortars and huddling in bomb shelters.
• For more on this story, visit ProPublica's Disposable Army Dill, a Marine Corps veteran, was a different man when he came back for visits here, his family said: moody, isolated, morose. He screamed at his wife and daughter. His weight dropped. Dark circles haunted his dark brown eyes.
Three weeks after he returned home for good, Dill booked a room in an anonymous three-story motel alongside Interstate 5. There, on July 16, 2006, he shot himself in the head with a 9 mm handgun. He left a suicide note for his wife and a picture for his daughter, then 16. The caption read: "I did exist and I loved you.''
More than three years later, Dill's loved ones are still reeling, their pain compounded by a drawn-out battle with an insurance company over death benefits from the suicide. Barb Dill, 47, nearly lost the family’s home to foreclosure. “We’re circling the drain,” she said.
Click the Image Below to View Our Gallery of One Family's Struggle With Suicide's Aftermath
While suicide among soldiers has been a focus of Congress and the public, relatively little attention has been paid to the mental health of tens of thousands of civilian contractors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. When they make the news at all, contractors are usually in the middle of scandal, depicted as cowboys, wastrels or worse.
No agency tracks how many civilian workers have killed themselves after returning from the war zones. A small study in 2007 found that 24 percent of contract employees from DynCorp, a defense contractor, showed signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after returning home. The figure is roughly equivalent to those found in studies of returning soldiers.
If the pattern holds true on a broad scale, thousands of such workers may be suffering from mental trauma, said Paul Brand, the CEO of Mission Critical Psychological Services, a firm that provides counseling to war zone civilians. More than 200,000 civilians work in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the most recent figures.
"There are many people falling through the cracks, and there are few mechanisms in place to support these individuals,'' said Brand, who conducted the study while working at DynCorp."There's a moral obligation that's being overlooked. Can the government really send people to a war zone and neglect their responsibility to attend to their emotional needs after the fact?"
The survivors of civilians who have committed suicide have found themselves confused, frustrated and alone in their grief.
"If I was in the military, I'd at least have someone to talk to," said Melissa Finkenbinder, 42, whose husband, Kert, a mechanic, killed himself after returning from Iraq. "Contractors don't have anything. Their families don't have anything."
Some families of civilian contractors who have committed suicide have tried to battle for help through an outdated government system designed to provide health insurance and death benefits to civilian contractors injured or killed on the job.
Under the system, required by a law known as the Defense Base Act, defense firms must purchase workers’ compensation insurance for their employees in war zones. It is highly specialized and expensive insurance, dominated by the troubled giant AIG and a handful of other companies. The cost of it is paid by taxpayers as part of the contract price.
If the pattern holds true on a broad scale, thousands of war zone workers may be suffering from mental trauma, said Paul Brand, the CEO of Mission Critical Psychological Services, a firm which provides counseling to war zone civilians.
But the law, which is designed to provide coverage for accidental death and injury, blocks payment of death benefits in the case of almost all suicides. Cases linked to mental incapacity are the lone exception, judges have ruled.
A joint investigation last year by ProPublica, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that contract workers must frequently battle carriers for basic medical coverage. While Congress has promised reforms, there has been no discussion of changing the law when it comes to suicides involving civilian defense workers.
The military, by contrast, allows survivors to receive benefits in cases in which a soldier's suicide can be linked to depression caused by battlefield stress.
Hundreds of soldiers have committed suicide since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, according to studies by the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In response, the Defense Department has become more active in trying to prevent suicide than its hired contractors, military experts said.
The military is "aggressively trying to reach people and do intervention beforehand and set up suicide awareness programs,” said Ian de Planque, a benefits expert at the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group. "Awareness of it has increased. I don’t know that it’s transferred over to the civilian sector at this point."
Birgitt Eysselinck has spent years trying to prove that her husband's death in Iraq was related to stress from his job with a company specializing in the removal of land mines and explosive ordnance. So far, courts have sided with the insurance firm, Chicago-based CNA, in denying Eysselinck's claim. (CNA declined to comment, citing privacy reasons.)
Eysselinck, 44, said that neither federal judges nor insurance adjusters understand that civilian contractors face many of the same risks in Iraq and Afghanistan that soldiers do. Her husband, Tim Eysselinck, endured mortar attacks and frequently traveled across Iraq's dangerous highways, she said.
"There is a huge percentage of contractors who are silently suffering,” Eysselinck said. “That obviously puts them and their families at risk. Communities are bearing the brunt of this, especially the families."
Wade Dill was working at a local pest control company when he decided to take a job with KBR in Iraq in late 2004. The money was good—almost $11,000 a month for handling extermination and hazardous material disposal, more than double his normal salary.
"He said this was our opportunity,” Barb Dill said. “He could start a college fund for our daughter, pay off the mortgage and have a nice retirement. He told me at his age, 41, he didn't know if he had enough years left in him to give us what he wanted."
Wade started that December, working on bases in central and northern Iraq. Violence was ever present. A base near Mosul was shelled frequently. He told Barb that a mortar landed close enough to temporarily deafen him. Once, he called her sobbing.
"My husband never cried, ever,” she said. “Marines don't cry. A young man, a soldier, had put a pistol to his head and blown his brains out. And Wade had to go in and clean up after they removed the body—he had to clean up brain matter and blood. It really upset him."
Barb Dill noticed a change in her husband when he returned home for a visit in December 2005. The couple had been high school sweethearts, married for 15 years. They had troubles, but had always worked them out. Now, he seemed moody and often angry, lashing out at her and their daughter, Sara.
"He would say hateful things to me and our daughter—things he had never said before." Dill said. "This was a man that loved his little girl and his wife. He always called us his girls."
When Wade returned for another visit in June 2006, he abruptly quit his job and began acting erratically, Dill said. He ripped the wiring out of appliances, smashed mirrors and poured lighter fluid on their furniture.
After a few weeks, Wade took a room at a local motel. On July 15, he asked Barb to come see him. Their conversation spiraled into a confrontation. Frightened and angry, Barb sped off in her car. The next day, the Shasta County coroner's office called to tell her that Wade's body had been found in the room.
"He told me that he was sick and needed help,” Dill said. “I told him to get help and then we would talk. The last time I saw him was in my rearview mirror."
Dill soon found herself in financial difficulty. Her husband had always taken care of the bills. He had spent lavishly with his higher salary, buying two BMWs during trips home. Now, Dill discovered the couple was $300,000 in debt on their mortgage and car loans.
She plunged into depression, struggling to cope with her daughter’s grief and the sense that she had failed her husband in his time of need. She sold the cars and nearly lost her home after falling behind on mortgage payments.
She suffered mostly by herself. Except for a handful of Web sites, no support groups exist for widows of civilian contractors. The federal government offers no counseling for civilians returning from work in war zones.
Dill said that she felt abandoned by everyone: her husband's employer, the insurance company and especially the federal government, which oversees the Defense Base Act system through the Labor Department.
"Shouldn't our government be responsible for the companies they hire?" Dill said. "Shouldn't our government take care of its own people, who are doing jobs our government, ultimately, wanted them to do?"
Survivors of civilian contractors whose death is related to their work in Iraq have the right to apply for compensation benefits that pay up to $63,000 a year for life.
Dill applied, asserting that her husband’s PTSD made him an exception to the rule against payments in suicide cases. Her claim was denied by AIG, KBR's insurance provider.
She protested, sending her claim into a dispute resolution system run by the Labor Department. Her case is still grinding its way through the system, which can take years to produce a final result.
Experts hired by the family and the insurance company differed on what led to Wade Dill’s suicide.
A psychiatrist hired by her attorney found that job stress in Iraq was one of the factors that drove Wade to suicide: "The bottom line is that the combination of physical separation and work-related stress resulted in increasingly emotional distance, greater distortion of the relationship, increasing emotional intensity, and a pattern of increasing erratic behaviors that culminated in suicide," wrote Charles Seaman, an expert in PTSD.
A Labor Department examiner recommended that AIG pay the claim, but the company refused. AIG and KBR declined comment about the case. In court filings, AIG has argued that the Defense Base Act does not cover suicides.
AIG attorneys also have said that Wade Dill's actions were related to marital and family problems. A psychiatrist hired by AIG testified at a hearing in San Francisco in January that he had performed a "psychological autopsy" on Wade Dill based on interviews with his family and court documents.
The psychiatrist, Andrew D. Whyman, said his evaluation led him to conclude that Dill suffered from depression and that his suicide was unrelated to the violence he witnessed in Iraq.
"Take out the Iraq experience, (the suicide) would have happened," Whyman testified. "He had a choice. … He could have chosen not to do that."
Barb Dill insists her husband came back from Iraq a changed man.
"No matter how strained our relationship could get at times, we always pulled out of it with no problem," Dill said. "Iraq changed all that."
Now, she said, she is trying to hold her life together. A final decision in her case is not expected for months.
"We're just slowly sinking," she said. "It's hard to be strong."
T. Christian Miller is a senior reporter for ProPublica. He reported for the Los Angeles Times from 1997-2008. He won the 2010 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for his work on insurance coverage for defense contractors deployed in war zones. Miller is the author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. "For more information on contract workers killed and injured in war zones, please visit www.propublica.org/contractors"