US: Filling Gaps in Iraq, Then Finding a Void at Home

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

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




without them.








"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




anew.








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




giving them."








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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