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HEIDELBERG, Germany — The collection of psychological data on deploying troops may be jeopardized by a contractual dispute that put 10 researchers out of a job.

Contracted workers on the staff of the U.S Army Medical Research Unit-Europe were told last month that Monday would be their last day.

“We are the collateral damage in contractual negotiations,” said research associate Kathleen McConnell. “We are prisoners of our contract.”

Among the unit’s seven major research studies are: the neurological assessment of battle stress; psychological screening and debriefing; and keeping track of soldiers evacuated from Iraq, Operation Enduring Freedom and the Balkans. The unit also supports the U.S. Army Europe’s suicide prevention program. The loss of the core researchers comes at a critical time, said researcher Erica Schroeder.

About 10 military units have requested psychological screening for soldiers deployed to Iraq, Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Southwest Asia, she said.

“Some of them are waiting to be done,” Schroeder said. “If we aren’t here, we can’t support these missions.” For seven years, researchers collected data from the screenings, which identify soldiers needing psychological treatment before, during and after deployment.

“Now you have this break in service, and we’re in the middle of a war,” McConnell said. “As of April 1, there [is] no staff.”

Anteon, the government’s prime contractor, hired subcontractor Project Support Services, LLC, to manage the unit. On Feb. 15, the Army renewed Anteon’s contract, but Anteon severed its relationship with PSS.

Since each researcher signed a non-compete clause with PSS, none can be rehired by Anteon, McConnell said.

Anteon will not hire the researchers under the non-compete clause unless PSS manager Gerard Gracey releases them from the agreement in writing.

Gracey could not be reached for comment. Anteon declined to discuss anything specific about the contract.

In a March 7 letter, Gracey fired the contracted researchers and said he would not allow them to continue their work under Anteon. The same day, Anteon posted announcements for their jobs on the corporate Web site. Except for four soldiers, the unit based on Nachrichten Casern is staffed by government civilians and contracted employees.

Normally, a non-compete agreement bars an employee from working for a competitor in the same field, said Florida attorney Harold Eskin.

Eskin, who reviewed the contract on behalf of the contracted employees, said once PSS was cut loose from Anteon, their legal interest in Army research evaporated — essentially ending any binding clause.

“If PSS has no further business in the field of the contract, then the [non-compete] agreement is not enforceable,” he said.

The contract problem also has raised eyebrows in the Army medical research command.

“Clearly, this is mission-oriented work,” said Cynthia Vaughan, a spokeswoman for Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Europe, which oversees the Army medical research unit. “We hope to see this matter resolved quickly and the research resumed as soon as possible.”

Anteon promised temporary staff to fill positions beginning Tuesday, McConnell said, but the current employees don’t expect them to show.

“You can’t walk in off the street and do our jobs,” she said. “It’s not going to restart very quickly.”

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