The Unsung Heroes: Civilians in the Crossfire

When the U.S. military deploys overseas and fights, it does not go alone. Thousands of civilians -- both government and contractors -- accompany the military and stand with them in harm's way.

Who are these relatively unknown civilians? What kind of support do they provide to the military? And why would they risk life and limb to go into a combat zone?

Most civilians are from the Departments of Defense and State, but when nations must be rebuilt, employees from USAID, the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and other Federal Agencies are also deployed with the troops.

Some civilians have no choice; they are considered "mission essential" and must deploy with the military as part of their government job. Many are former military personnel that believe in the mission and understand what the troops need to succeed. Surprisingly, many contractors that support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not Americans. They hail from the U.K., India, South Africa, Philippines, Lebanon, Kuwait, Ukraine and many other countries.

Civilians on the battlefield have served in technical and administrative positions such as logisticians, maintenance technicians, program managers, architects, engineers, quality assurance representatives, contracting officers, counsel, and interpreters. Due to a lack of troops, much of the security for hundreds of reconstruction sites in Iraq and Afghanistan has been provided by civilian security forces that protect convoys, escort workers and diplomats, and guard key infrastructure, facilities and work sites. The media has rarely reported the benefits that these security contractors provide to our nation, but the press has been quick to vilify them when they've done something wrong. Hundreds of contractors have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their actions receive little attention and less credit, particularly if they were not American citizens or U.S. Government employees.

Performing the reconstruction mission in Iraq required a massive mobilization of thousands of contractors and U.S. Government civilians. Putting that many civilians on the battlefield was a huge task and a necessary risk. When the security situation in Iraq deteriorated, the number of security contractors began to proliferate. At one point, Task Force Shield alone had 14,000 security contractors guarding oil facilities and pipelines. Reconstruction operations would not have succeeded without civilians repairing and protecting the critical infrastructure.

The most admirable of volunteers deploy with the first wave of U.S. forces, willing to face the greatest uncertainty, the highest risk and tolerate the most austere living conditions. Many are adventure-seeking patriots that want to escape a relatively boring life in the United States. Each new rotation of civilians has it a bit easier, as they benefit from improved security and living standards. Volunteers in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 or Iraq in 2003-2004 had few comforts and limited options for food, water and hygiene. Now, there is air conditioning, cable TV and Skype, and daily showers are common. While some remote operating bases remain austere, the big bases are relatively well served -- but inherent danger and long-term family separation still exist.

A tour "in the box" (Iraq or Afghanistan) can help civilians meet financial goals. Deployment offers more money for soldiers, government civilians and contractors as increased risk and hardship come with increased compensation. After all the financial incentives are applied, most Americans make six-figure salaries while deployed. I recall a Filipino contractor security guard outside King Faisal's Palace in Iraq who made 20 times more money checking ID cards than working as a schoolteacher in his home country. One of our Iraqi laborers called $40 per week for rebuilding his own country "dream money."

Deployment is not for everyone. There are screening standards for health and fitness that government civilians and contractors must pass before being allowed to deploy into combat zones although the requirements are not as strict as they are for the military.

The risks faced by civilians living and working in combat zones vary widely. Most perform duties on installations or bases that are well protected by the military or security forces. While subject to occasional rocket and mortar attacks, they are relatively safe from car bombs, sniping, kidnappings and other attacks. However, some civilians must live or travel "outside the wire" to perform their job. It is here where they face the greatest risk and deserve our utmost respect. Let's not forget them; they are an essential part of our team and their sacrifice deserves special recognition!