Two and a half years ago, Texan Mark McLean found himself “running for his life” one hot evening on a military base in Baghdad.
It was, according to McLean, “the number one shelled base in Iraq for a couple of years” “ and just such a mortar event sent McLean, a Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc. water purification technician, scrambling for cover during the workday’s second shift.
According to McLean, he slid under a flight of stairs, hurting his right knee. When the shelling was over, he raised himself to his 6-foot-plus height, hitting his head on the edge of the staircase and compressing his spine. It was the night of April 7, 2007.
On the following day, McLean says a KBR medic advised him to soldier on.
“‘If you tell anybody about it, you’re probably going to get fired,’” McLean reported the medic to have said. “So I worked another year, not knowing how injured I was, but it got to the point where I couldn’t even walk to the dining facility once a day.”
McLean, who is now a part-time resident of Waring in Kendall County, said he’s received minimal medical attention since the initial injury, a deteriorating condition that’s left him crippled by constant pain.
After 12 months of wait-and-see during which his injuries didn’t resolve themselves, McLean ended up in Kuwait City, visiting a physician who pushed for “immediate surgery.”
That recommendation was made in the spring of 2008. Since McLean’s return to the U.S. in May of that year, he said he’s waited “ and waited “ and continues to wait “ for AIG, KBR’s insurance carrier under the Defense Base Act, to decide if McLean’s claim is legitimate.
Apparently, McLean’s problems are not unique. In June of this year, the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing revealingly entitled “After Injury, the Battle Begins: Evaluating Workers’ Compensation for Civilian Contractors in War Zones.”
During the hearing, two contract workers testified that AIG “delayed and denied” their claims for months that dragged into years. In addition, a December 2007 Army audit revealed that almost $300 million that AIG received in taxpayer-funded premiums were being paid out at a rate of less than 4 percent.
Last year, congressional investigators calculated that insurance companies had collected $1.5 billion in premiums, while estimating that these companies would spend approximately $900 million in compensation.
The generally accepted numbers reveal that although thousands of contractors have been injured while working jobs on American bases, AIG is reporting profits that range between 37 to 50 percent.
In April of this year, an investigation conducted by ProPublica, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times maintained that AIG is “battling” civilian contractor claims by “routinely” denying them. According to the investigation, outstanding claims to AIG account for most of an insurance inventory including claims by more than 32,000 laborers or their families injured or killed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
McLean certainly feels himself to be one of what some are calling the “Disposable Army.” His status as a contract worker has earned the technician and others like him, a spot in a dusty and forgotten back drawer.
Nobody cares, McLean said, because of the preconceived notions that contract workers endure. People believe he made huge sums of money, according to McLean, when in fact his paycheck stub reveals that he made $14.95 an hour, clocking 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Others doubt his very motivation “ his patriotism – McLean said.
“I’ve had a woman spit on me and call me a mercenary. A lot of Army guys feel that way too, but I faced dangers too and I didn’t make that much money,” he said. “Where military gets people coming up to them and thanking them for being a hero “ you know, I’ve been spit upon.”
The ProPublica, ABC News and Los Angeles Times investigation reports that Texas has suffered a surprisingly high number of contractor casualties per capita ” 22 contractors have been injured or killed for every 100,000 people. It’s the second highest rate in the nation after Washington D.C.
Every four military casualties are matched by one civilian contractor death.
But McLean doesn’t so much care about these statistics aside from how they might affect his insurance hearing that has been delayed many times.
Mostly, McLean said he would just like for his pain to be addressed.
“Right now my lower back feels like it’s got a knife going in it,” McLean said. “I’ve got pain radiating down both legs and both my feet feel like they’re on fire. I live in constant pain “ constant pain, life-altering pain. And there’s nothing I can do to not feel pain. Chronic pain wears you down. You can’t concentrate.”
He’d also like to be recognized as having served the United States. Excluded earlier from military service because of asthma, McLean said he was excited, to be going to Baghdad.
“I was finally getting to do something for my country.” Instead he said, he hears comments like, “Oh, you really didn’t do anything.”
McLean keenly feels this dismissal.
“You don’t get used to living in a place like that,” he said of his service in Baghdad. “You don’t get used to putting your friends in body bags.”
Six of his civilian friends were killed by shelling during the course of the three years he was in Iraq.
“It’s so unpleasant there. You’re constantly worn out, you’re constantly tired “ it’s just a dangerous, nasty, horrible place,” McLean said, “but I kept doing it.”
Thirty days after he returned to San Antonio, McLean tried to log onto his KBR employee accounts, and that’s how he found out he’d been fired while on medical leave. “Not one person has contacted me,” McLean said. “My life is on hold.”
Living expenses for the past year have chewed through his savings, and he said he knows that under the Defense Base Act, AIG isn’t likely to grant any compensation for pain and suffering. McLean is asking for the past year’s wages and medical help.
Almost 30 months have passed since his injury and McLean’s claim is still in limbo.
Meanwhile, the Houston Business Journal reported in January that KBR was granted another $35.4 million contract for further work in Iraq.
“This whole thing is a travesty,” McLean said. “I resisted telling this story for awhile, but I think people ought to know. I served my country too, and I’ve been forgotten.”
Editors note: As often happens when you interview with small time journalists who are just banging out a story there are misquotes and omissions that alter the facts in this story and are not exactly the way that Mark expressed them.