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Combat stress afflicts civilian contractors returning from Iraq

Mental health issues often slip under the radar

WASHINGTON -- Contractors who have worked in Iraq are returning home with the same kinds of combat-related mental health problems that afflict US military personnel, according to contractors, industry officials, and mental health specialists.

But, they say, the private workers are largely left to find care on their own , and their problems are often ignored or are inadequately treated.

A vast second army of contractors, up to 126,000 Americans, Iraqis, and other foreigners, are working for the US government in Iraq.

Many work side by side with soldiers and are exposed to the same dangers, but they must mostly fend for themselves in navigating the civilian healthcare system when they come back to the United States.

With no widespread screening, many workers are not identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other problems, mental health experts and contractors say. And, they add, the quality of treatment for others can vary widely because of limited civilian expertise in combat-related disorders.

Only a few mental health professionals have focused on the issue, but they warn that the number of contractors leaving Iraq with mental health problems is large and growing.

"I think the numbers are in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands," said Paul Brand, a psychologist and chief executive of Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago firm hired by Dyncorp International, a major contractor in Iraq, to assess and treat its workers.

"Many are going undiagnosed. These guys are fighting demons, and they don't know how to cope."

Jana Crowder, who runs a website for contractors seeking help, says she gets new evidence of that every day in phone calls from desperate workers.

"In the first few years of the war, we were seeing a few trickle in," said Crowder, of Knoxville, Tenn. "Now, as contractors start coming home, you are starting to see a lot more."

Workers tell haunting tales of their psychological torment. Tate Mallory, a police officer from South Dakota who worked as a Dyncorp police trainer, was grievously wounded by a rocket- powered grenade last fall. After returning home, he was so mentally scarred, he said, that he begged his brother to kill him.

Kenneth Allen, a 70-year-old truck driver from Georgia whose convoy was ambushed in Iraq, says he endures mood swings and jittery nerves and is often awake all night.

And Nathaniel Anderson, a Texan whose truck was hit by rockets while hauling jet fuel, lost a contractor friend to suicide. Though suffering from stress- related symptoms himself, he has yet to see a doctor.

The war's toll on contractors has largely been hidden from public view. About 1,000 have died since the conflict began, and nearly 13,000 have been injured.

While some are well compensated for their work in Iraq, many more collect modest wages and provide support services vital to the military.

The federal government, which has paid billions to corporations for services in Iraq since the war began, has not examined the issue of mental health problems among private workers, according to Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs officials.

"To my knowledge, it has not been looked at systematically," said Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, a Veterans Affairs official who directs the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Contract workers who are wounded or disabled in the war zone are treated in military hospitals in Iraq and Germany, but once home, they are not eligible for care in the military or Veterans Affairs system. And unlike troops, they are not routinely evaluated for mental or stress disorders after their tours.

When soldiers and veterans complained in recent months of lapses in their care, top officials in Washington promised improvements, but the plight of troubled civilian workers has not captured such attention.

Many companies conduct pre-deployment psychological screening and offer limited counseling, but provide few resources when their workers return home and often go off the payroll.

Federal law requires employers to provide medical insurance for workers in a war zone. Workers have filed about 205 claims for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to the Department of Labor, which monitors the data.

Industry officials say that number significantly underrepresents the problem because many troubled people do not file claims.

Of those who do, many have been denied coverage and have filed lawsuits. Gary Pitts, a Houston lawyer, says insurers have challenged almost every claim filed by about 50 clients, even though the insurance companies paid for medical care involving their physical injuries.

"The contrast between the way the military and the civilian contractors are handled on PTSD is like night and day," Pitts said.

"The contractors have to figure it out on their own, and they often have to litigate it with the insurance company."

The insurance problems may be partly related to the dearth of civilian mental health professionals equipped to deal with combat-related stress, said Brand, the Dyncorp psychologist, and Dr. Spencer Eth, who helped write the treatment guidelines for post- traumatic stress syndrome for the American Psychiatric Association.

"The availability of mental health care providers with specific expertise in this is scant around the country," said Eth, a New York psychiatrist.

"You have problems of access to care, financial obstacles to care, and so most of these people are not going to get the help they need."

AIG, the giant insurance company that provides coverage for several of the largest contractors in Iraq, has paid about half of claims involving PTSD, said Chris Winans, an AIG spokesman. But many of the others are delayed or challenged because the insurers' medical specialists disagree with the diagnoses, Winans said.

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