WASHINGTON -- Halliburton Co. truck drivers Tim Bell and Bill Bradley disappeared April 9 when their convoy was attacked west of Baghdad.
Did they die at the scene? Were they captured? Is there reason for hope?
No one will say.
Like those of many contractors caught in the violence of Iraq, their fates are shrouded in mystery.
The Army has conducted an investigation into the ambush, but the report is classified. Pentagon officials refused to discuss its contents, directing questions to Halliburton. The company referred questions back to the Pentagon.
"We have done everything in our power to find information and found that we are hitting a brick wall," Bradley's family wrote in an e-mail to the Houston Chronicle.
"We are crushed."
The military has turned heavily to private contractors to supplement the work of enlisted personnel, freeing military troops for combat. For pay of $80,000 or more, civilians go to Iraq to drive trucks, build bases, deliver mail and serve chow. They live on base, eat in the mess hall, shop at the PX.
And just like soldiers, they are attacked, abducted and sometimes killed.
When a U.S. soldier or Marine is killed in Iraq, the Pentagon provides to the public the individual's name, age and hometown, as well as a brief description of the cause of death.
When it comes to contractor casualties, the Pentagon has left it up to the company to report -- or not.
And the response has been mostly not.
At least 55 Halliburton employees and subcontractors have been killed and more than 100 others wounded in Iraq and Kuwait, according to the company. Other companies won't say how many of their workers are dead or injured, and the Pentagon isn't keeping track.
Halliburton has publicly identified just 12 of those dead workers, while the names of eight others have trickled out.
Halliburton does notify families in person when a contractor is killed and is providing health care expenses for the wounded.
The April 9 attack caught international attention because truck driver Tommy Hamill of Macon, Miss., was paraded by his captors before an Australian television crew. He later escaped and was rescued, making him the most famous U.S. worker in Iraq.
Bradley, a former Galveston resident, was driving the 14th truck in the 20-vehicle convoy. Few other details are known.
Like Hamill, Army Reserve Spc. Keith "Matt" Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, was captured in that ambush.
A few days after the attack, Al-Jazeera television showed a video of Maupin surrounded by gunmen. In June, Al-Jazeera showed another video of a blindfolded man, who the station said was later shown being shot. Pentagon officials have not been able to conclusively say whether Maupin was that man.
He is officially listed as captured, and a military source said the search for Maupin continues "every day."
What kind of search is being done for Bell and Bradley is unclear.
"Nobody seems to know what's going on," said Bell's sister, Felicia Carter of Mobile, Ala.
When a contract worker is injured in an attack, the military provides urgent medical care, evacuates the victim out of Iraq for hospitalization when necessary and transports the remains of slain workers back home for burial.
But the Pentagon insists it doesn't know how many contractors have been killed.
Larry Makinson, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group in Washington, said the Pentagon likes it that way.
"They were afraid of turning this into another Vietnam," Makinson said. "They know what it's like to see casualty figures day after day. The reliance on civilian contractors in Iraq is really a different variation on the same theme that led the Pentagon to ban taking photographs of flag-draped coffins."
Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime critic of the military's privatization effort, argues that casualties of war are not a private family concern but a public policy issue.
Exactly how many Americans are working as contractors in Iraq also remains unclear.
The Pentagon has long had trouble counting contract workers. Dan Guttman, a government contracting expert and consultant for the Center for Public Integrity, points to a 2002 Army estimate that said there were somewhere between 124,000 and 605,000 contractors.
The upper end of that range is comparable to the population of Wyoming.
Degrees of openness
Halliburton has been more public about its casualties in Iraq than other contractors.
San Francisco's Bechtel and Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons Group won't say whether they've had casualties in Iraq.
"We do not discuss safety and security issues, either directly or indirectly," Bechtel spokeswoman Brenda Thompson said.
The San Francisco Chronicle, however, has identified three Bechtel casualties.
Fluor Corp., which is working on power projects in Iraq, has not had any employees die. Some security subcontractors for the Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based company have been killed, but company spokesman Jerry Holloway could not say how many or under what circumstances.
Because of the information vacuum, little is known about how the majority of contractors have died.
As of early April, Halliburton revealed 12 of its workers had been killed. By April 20, that figure had jumped to 33.
Five of those killed in April were caught in the same ambush as Bell and Bradley.
Details of what happened to the remaining 21 killed between April 2 and April 20 are unclear.
Another 13 workers have been killed in the last four months. Only four have been publicly identified.
Halliburton's most recent casualty was 43-year-old medic Jeffery Serrett, who died Nov. 2.
The company, in a news release issued last week, said Serrett was killed "by small-arms fire near Baghdad."
Halliburton officials told Serrett's family that the Fredericksburg, Va., man was shot while working at a clinic at the Abu Ghraib prison, his sister Lola Serrett said.
Lola Serrett said someone knocked at the clinic door and, when her brother opened it, an assailant fired on him.
Company officials told the family that Serrett's death was part of the latest round of attacks in Iraq. At least two American contractors are known to have been kidnapped recently, while three other people were beheaded.
Halliburton and other contractors say they are loath to provide information about their casualties for fear of making targets of other employees.
Many also are eager to help their workers avoid the inevitable swarm of reporters.
Families whose loved ones have been confirmed dead are notified in person by Halliburton "notification teams," who will stay with grieving family members until relatives, friends, a clergyman or some other emotional support can arrive. The coffins arrive home draped in a U.S. flag.
After the April 9 ambush and the intense attention it attracted worldwide, Halliburton began disclosing names of some of its slain workers.
Before doing so, the company sends out paperwork to slain workers' families, offering to write a brief "tribute" to the fallen employee on the company's Web site.
The company won't issue a news release unless the family asks for one.
"Some families have requested privacy, and we honor that request," Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Gist said.
Though many families prefer to grieve in private, others have been eager to ensure that their loved ones receive public recognition.
Felipe E. Lugo III, 36, died in a mortar attack Oct. 19 while working on a military base near central Baghdad.
His wife, Lisa Bailey-Lugo, asked the company to issue a news release in his honor.
"President Bush said no one would be forgotten," Bailey-Lugo said this week after a memorial service for her husband. " I don't want him -- or anybody else who has already died -- forgotten."