Recently, our nation’s colors were lowered to half-staff at a tiny contractor outpost tucked away among the foothills of Afghanistan. It is a sober reminder of the grievous cost that comes with doing business here. Sadly, however, most Americans will not know of the sacrifice behind this solemn act; neither will they know of the hundreds before who have perished.

Never has American military intervention relied so heavily on the involvement of Department of Defense- and State Department-backed U.S. civilians as it does today. Lured to service out of sheer necessity, our nation has raised what is, in effect, a civilian army — one that is decisive in waging today’s wars.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of these civilian military personnel have deployed in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hundreds have paid with their lives; many hundreds more have been wounded.

Independent contractors, subcontractors and a multitude of government employees are performing countless functions critical to the success of ongoing combat operations and reconstruction projects. They are immersed in the training and equipping of Iraqi as well as Afghan security forces. They have implemented never-before-possible infrastructure and quality-of-life programs critical to the health, morale and welfare of our troops. They provide individual and collective security measures at nearly every installation in theater. Today’s civilian military personnel are as essential to the accomplishment of coalition objectives as any soldier, sailor, Marine or airman in uniform.

Populations of civilian military in war zones approach and often times surpass that of uniformed fighting forces. Nevertheless, there is little mention of their successes, bravery or casualty reporting by news agencies or political organizations. They come and go from combat theaters by the thousands virtually unnoticed. As such, expressions of gratitude are conspicuously absent. You will not see them represented during parades or at formal functions. More often than not these men and women are looked upon with suspicion, labeled as mercenaries, even demonized. …

Civilian military personnel in combat zones not only match deployment ratios of their servicemember brethren, they routinely exceed them. Not unlike their military counterparts, they are volunteers and patriots who have evolved into a form of combatant directly backing uniformed fighting forces. They are safeguarding America’s survival and economic interests — in fact, defending the Constitution of the United States “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Replicating these contributions would require the addition of a great many fully manned military organizations — a luxury our all-volunteer forces can ill-afford.

Members of the armed forces engaged in the fight to defeat terrorism will receive formal recognition upon completion of their overseas tours. In contrast, the vast majority of civilians get nothing. There are no less than 14 decorations and other awards specifically intended to honor the service of contractors, subcontractors and government employees. Yet it is rare to find anyone who has benefited from such accolades. DOD awards policies governing civilian military in war zones, if any do exist, sadly lack implementation.

The American people rallied to the heroic efforts of firefighters, police and paramedics when the towers fell and rightly so. We must now pay tribute to the legions of civilian military personnel who have reinforced the ranks of coalition forces in the global war on terror. These new-age warriors are defending American freedoms wherever and whenever there is fighting. They are not behind the lines; there are no lines, only a 360-degree battlefield. They are America’s unsung heroes.

Command Sgt. Maj. Gerald T. Peil (retired) is an independent contractor in Afghanistan.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now