Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Soldiers of Misfortune: The Downside of Outsourcing in the Military

When I was growing up, one of the humorous military situations you could always count on showing up in the Beetle Bailey comics, or on the Sgt. Bilko show, was someone getting stuck peeling potatoes on K.P.

K.P. Kitchen Police. It was part of the post-war vocabulary.

I even seem to remember my Uncle Bob, whose Elvis-era sideburns and pompadour were razored off when he was drafted, telling us enthralled kids about his stints on K.P.

K.P., I'm guessing, is a thing of the past, outsourced, along with a lot of other functions. As a recent article in The New York Times by John Broder reported, there are "130,000 civilians  supporting 160,000 United States soldiers and marines" in Iraq.

...these contract employees cook meals, wash clothes, deliver fuel and guard bases. And they die and suffer alongside their brothers and sisters in uniform. About 1,000 contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began; nearly 13,000 have been injured.

One injured civilian was the sad focus of Broder's story.

Shaheen Khan, a U.S. citizen originally from Pakistan, along with her husband, wanted to do something about their debt problem. So they decided to take jobs in the war zone. Mrs. Kahn was able to triple her salary as a nursery school worker by signing up with KBR to do laundry in the Green Zone.

We're not talking about the six-figure incomes we hear thrown around for the security guys, the truck drivers. We're talking about someone whose pay-day bonanza is an annual salary of less than $50K, but some overtime upside that could have gotten her tax-free take up to $80K. The lure was just to great for Mrs. Kahn. 

But instead of $80K - or even $50K, what Shaheen Kahn ended up with was a crushed spinal cord and life back in Houston in a nursing home, wrangling with KBR's insurance carrier about whether she should be compensated based on her original salary as a nursery school teacher, or on what she could have made in Iraq, if she hadn't been so seriously injured after just five weeks in country.

Okay. Hessian. Mercenary. Soldier of fortune. Profiteer.

Argue all you want that there's no reward without risk.

Still, there's something distinctly unsettling about the notion of outsourcing jobs that used to be done by soldiers when part of the cost savings is predicated on the played forward notion that a wounded civilian doesn't get lifetime military benefits or access to VA hospitals, that the coverage provided by something called the Defense Base Act, which covers civilians, is not as costly - or, of course, as valuable -  as the "real thing." Even though the person is performing a function that just a war or two ago was performed by a soldier.

Some Americans shrug about the casualties among contractors, saying they made their money and they took their chances. Others, though, think the nation owes them something more.

I'm one of them.

Whether it's not looking too closely into the conditions under which goods are produced "somewhere else", or not looking too closely when it comes to saving the taxpayers a little money on the war, we seem to turn a lot of blind eyes to the real costs to us as a society.

1,000 contractors have been killed. 13,000 have been injured. Sure, these soldiers of misfortune "made their money and they took their chances." But does any of this make us feel good about the outcome?

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