America has given much to Shaheen Khan. It has taken something, too.
Three years ago, she was a nursery school teacher here, a meek woman with a
melodic voice who charmed the children with tales from her native Pakistan.
Today, Mrs. Khan shares a room in a dreary nursing home on the fringes of
Houston, paralyzed from midchest down and tormented by a fateful choice to try
to remake her life.
Mired in debt and strained by a sometimes difficult marriage, Mrs. Khan signed
up in 2004 with the military contracting giant KBR to do laundry for American
forces in Iraq, a job that promised to triple the $16,000 a year she was earning
at the school. She was assigned to work in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and she
convinced herself that she would be safe.
Five weeks after arriving in Iraq, she was speeding down a Baghdad highway in a
Chevy Tahoe when the driver swerved to avoid a box he feared was a bomb. The
vehicle rolled five times, leaving Mrs. Khan unconscious, suspended from her
seat belt with a crushed spinal cord. Doctors have told her she will not walk again.
She is not given to self-pity, but when asked what she looks forward to, Mrs.
Khan's eyes turn cloudy. "Nothing," she said. "Now my life is almost over."
This is the face of battle in a new war and a new century - a 46-year-old
Pakistani-American woman, part of a rented army of 130,000 civilians supporting
160,000 United States soldiers and marines. Taking the place of enlisted troops
in every American army before this one, 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.
The consequences of the war will be lasting for many of them and their families,
ordeals that are largely invisible to most Americans. And they will be costly.
The most grievously injured, like Mrs. Khan, are initially treated at military
hospitals in Iraq and Europe, then sent home and left to the mercies of their
employer's insurance carrier. The less critically hurt, and those with psychic
wounds, must fend for themselves to get care.
Nobody makes the private workers go to Iraq or forces them to stay, of course;
the high salaries some collect lead critics to dismiss them as mercenaries and
their employers as profiteers. But many more contractors, like Mrs. Khan, earn
relatively modest wages - far less than the $100,000 the Army says an enlisted
soldier costs annually in pay, benefits and training - and some foreign workers
who perform some of the most dangerous tasks are paid just dollars a day. After
a decade of downsizing and outsourcing, the American military cannot wage war
"Everything about this is unprecedented," said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the
Brookings Institution in Washington who has written about battlefield
contractors. "The scope, the numbers, the roles people are performing - this is
all new ground."
In addition to escaping her troubles, Mrs. Khan, who became an American citizen
in 2001, thought going to Iraq would give her a chance to repay the country that
offered her fulfillment she could never have had in Pakistan, a close friend said.
"She is totally trapped now - only her mind and her soul remain her own," the
friend, Betty Linder, who was once Mrs. Khan's boss, wrote in an e-mail
interview. "Her quest for freedom, literally and symbolically, put her in an
eternal prison. The sadness of this could almost symbolize the sadness of the
whole Iraq situation."
Shaheen Abdul was born into a middle-class family in Karachi. She excelled at
the university there, then followed her sister, Mumtaz, to Houston in 1986 and
began working in her dry cleaning shop.
She returned to Karachi seven years later to marry Abdul Waheed Khan, a union
arranged by their families. The couple moved to Houston in 1998, when her
husband, a welder, got work papers.
She began teaching at Mrs. Linder's preschool, the Linder Learning Land.
"Shaheen does not have children of her own and she gives all of her love to
those that she teaches," Mrs. Linder wrote.
But as happy as she was at school, things were tense at home. Her husband, then
working for Halliburton, was often away on jobs and sporadically unemployed, and
the couple's credit card debts and car loans totaled more than $35,000 by 2004,
Mrs. Khan said.
KBR, which until this year was a subsidiary of Halliburton, was hiring for all
manner of work in Iraq. Mrs. Khan signed up for a laundry job with a base salary
of $48,000 a year and the chance to make as much as $80,000 with overtime, much
of it tax-free.
She and her husband planned to work a year in Iraq, clear their debts and start
She signed the 13-page employment agreement with KBR on Aug. 12, 2004, without
reading it. The contract noted that she would be working in a "potentially
hazardous environment" and that her only compensation if she were hurt or killed
would be that provided under the Defense Base Act, the law that provides
insurance for workers employed at United States military facilities overseas.
Mrs. Khan said she underwent several days of briefings and training in safety
procedures by KBR. Heather Browne, a KBR spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message
that during training, "most of the time is spent on discouraging recruits from
taking the job."
After the contracts were signed, the Khans were told it was company policy not
to send spouses to the same war zone, as they had hoped. On Aug. 15, Abdul Khan
boarded a plane to work as a welder at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Thirteen
days later, Shaheen Khan left for Baghdad.
She was assigned a sandbag-ringed trailer in a KBR residential compound known as
D2 inside the Green Zone. At 6 a.m. each day, a van picked up Mrs. Khan and
other laundry workers and took them to Camp Warrior at the other end of the
Green Zone, where she logged in bags of laundry.
She found the war zone overwhelming. She had to wear a helmet and a flak vest,
and she jumped every time she heard a mortar land or a roadside bomb explode.
Her husband, with whom she talked every few days by satellite phone, urged her
to go home.
On Oct. 3, 2004, she and four other workers were preparing to return to D2 for
the night. Anice Holmes, a no-nonsense woman who lives on a small horse farm
outside Livingston, Tex., usually took the wheel. She was in Iraq to accumulate
some cash after her husband had become disabled. That day, however, Fitim
Konjuvca, a young worker from Kosovo, begged to do the driving.
Mrs. Holmes, her sister Kathy Elliott and Mrs. Khan climbed in the back seat.
Another KBR laundry worker took the front passenger seat.
Mr. Konjuvca sped off onto a boulevard near the famous crossed-sabers memorial
and began climbing past 70 miles per hour, Mrs. Holmes recalled. "My sister
began to yell, 'Fitim!' to tell him to slow down, and then we saw the box in the
road. I figured he was going to slow down and go around it, and then he was
throwing on the brakes and we're rolling over. I thought we were gone."
As the car was tumbling, Mrs. Holmes recalled praying, "Jesus forgive me of my
sins." Mrs. Khan said she recited verses from the Koran before blacking out.
Mrs. Khan and Mrs. Holmes were the most seriously hurt. They were treated at an
Army field hospital in Baghdad and then flown to the Landstuhl Regional Medical
Center, an Army hospital in Germany, for surgery.
Mrs. Khan's husband, alerted to the accident by KBR officials in Afghanistan,
hopped a military plane to be by her side. "I am crying and shouting and weeping
and asking what is wrong," Mr. Khan said. "They told me it was her back. I knew
right away she would never walk again."
After five days at Landstuhl, Mrs. Khan was flown to Houston, where she endured
weeks of surgery and rehabilitation. She ended up in the Willowbrook nursing
home, sharing a small room with a dying old woman.
KBR dismissed her, as it does all employees unable to work. Her case was turned
over to its insurer, the American International Group.
A.I.G. paid Mrs. Khan's hospital charges and is covering her nursing home costs.
The company calculated her disability payments at $208.88 a week, based on her
salary as a teacher and the five weeks she worked in Iraq. On the advice of an
A.I.G. adjuster, she hired Gary B. Pitts, a Houston lawyer who represents dozens
of contractors hurt in Iraq, and sued the insurer for a higher payment, based on
her real and anticipated earnings at KBR. A year and a half after her injury, an
administrative law judge awarded her $30,500 a year until she is deemed fit to
return to work. Mrs. Khan says she is in too much pain to work now.
She has also disputed her medical benefits with A.I.G. The company rejected a
claim for treatment of an infected foot, finally relenting after months of
wrangling. But the company has refused to pay for in-home care so she can leave
the nursing home. An A.I.G. official, Chris Winans, said he could not comment on
Mrs. Khan's case for privacy reasons.
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.
"We should honor their sacrifices and those of their families," said Frank Camm,
a Rand Corporation economist who has studied contracting and is the son of a
retired Army lieutenant general. "They're not in uniform, and there is something
special about being in uniform. But they deserve a hell of a lot more than we're
Shaheen Khan does not dwell on such questions, or if she does, she does not talk
about it. She regrets her decision to go to Iraq, the product, she now believes,
of desperation and self-delusion.
"I made a big mistake going over there," she said. "I fooled myself."
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