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The lasting consequences of America's shift to using more contractors to fight wars


Many people who fought and died on behalf of the U.S. during 20 years of war in Afghanistan were actually contractors, not U.S. troops. It's part of a change in the way America fights its wars with lasting consequences. Steve Walsh of member station KPBS sent us this report.

ANDY COOTES: You become a lot less concerned with your own safety than you do the guys behind you because they're putting their life in your hand.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Andy Cootes is a veteran but not in Afghanistan. He served in the Navy in the 1990s, but after working as a narcotics dog handler for a police department in Texas, he was hired in 2008 by a private contractor to work with bomb sniffing dogs in Afghanistan. In less than a month, Cootes was in the field with special forces.

COOTES: Our rotation typically was we'd be there for six months, and then we'd get to come home for, like, 23 days, and then we'd go back. And then you go back for six more months.

WALSH: Noah Coburn is an anthropologist at Bennington College. He spent time in Afghanistan trying to get a handle on the number of contractors hired by the U.S.

NOAH COBURN: Frankly, the political cost of a contractor being killed is much less. It oftentimes doesn't even get reported on. And you can see it simply in the headlines after these attacks, where it will say, three troops killed, and it won't even mention the fact that there were with 12 contractors at the time.

WALSH: Brown University found about 7,000 military members died in all post-9/11 conflicts. But nearly 8,000 contractors died. Coburn says private contracts hide the true cost of war.

COBURN: Hiring companies to do the work that the military did historically, whether it's building the bases, whether it's delivering fuel.

WALSH: No one has a complete list of who was hired. Some were Americans. Many were Afghans. A large number were from third countries like Nepal and the Philippines. A few were highly paid, but most earned a tiny fraction of the trillion dollars the U.S. spent in Afghanistan. The effort to bring former Afghan contractors to the U.S. is a small part of a larger issue.

COBURN: One thing that every one of the last four administrations has agreed upon entirely - it's the one constant in our strategies in the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq - and that is the ratio of contractors to troops have steadily increased over the last 20 years.

BAHEER SAFI: I mean, I'm not a psychologist, but to be honest, I was able to see the anger in their face.

WALSH: Part of Baheer Safi's job was to go to villages with U.S. forces when someone was killed by mistake. He remembers an elderly man shot by an American sniper. The man was holding up what turned out to be a flashlight.

SAFI: They shot him down. And the next day, we were trying to cover that bad incident, and we had a meeting with them and explained everything and spent, like, at least two to three hours.

WALSH: Safi worked as an interpreter for nearly seven years before leaving Afghanistan in 2014. He's now an American citizen, living outside of Washington, D.C. Though Afghans were paid far less, they were expected to take on some of the most dangerous missions. When contractors get hurt, instead of military doctors and VA benefits, companies are using a version of workmens' (ph) compensation known as the Defense Base Act. Jeffrey Winter is an attorney in San Diego who handles these cases.

JEFFREY WINTER: They start to recognize they have flashbacks; they have things that startle them, and it gets to the point where they - the family says, look, you either need to go see somebody or we're leaving. It just gets to be that bad.

WALSH: Lawsuits can drag on for years. The dog handler Andy Cootes is back home in Texas. He's paying for his own PTSD treatment after receiving a settlement.

COOTES: I don't think of myself as just the civilian out there with those guys. It's just when you get outside that little bubble that me or anybody else who was in my position becomes just vapor. You know, they just kind of disappear, and we have to deal with it ourselves.

WALSH: Not at home with fellow combat veterans and not able to really move on from years of war.

For NPR news, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONDOG'S "BIRD'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh