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Contractors with Kellogg, Brown and Root gather with Marines from 2nd Platoon, Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 2 for a debriefing before returning to Al Asad Air Base from a supply run earlier this year.
Contractors with Kellogg, Brown and Root gather with Marines from 2nd Platoon, Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 2 for a debriefing before returning to Al Asad Air Base from a supply run earlier this year. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Jerry Utterback wonders when he became invisible.

Was it after he left military service? Or was it when he became a well-compensated civilian contractor serving in a war zone?

If Jerry Utterback, or any of the other thousands of contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan, was killed, the Defense Department would issue no news release detailing his name, age and circumstances surrounding his death.

“When a contractor is killed, I believe it should be covered and people made aware of their past service to their country, if they were a veteran, as a sign of respect, not only for the veteran but for their families as well,” said Utterback, who mentors senior noncommissioned officers of an Afghan Army unit at Camp Spann, Afghanistan.

“I believe the majority of contractors are not looking to be put in the limelight and only want to do our job to support our great soldiers and continue serving our country, and this is one way to continue serving since we can no longer serve on active duty,” said the retired soldier.

There is no complete clearinghouse that tracks and reports the deaths of contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan, making it more challenging for the public to gauge the “cost of war,” said Michael White, who maintains a private Web site tracking war casualties.

He readily admits his site — www.icasualties.org, on which he dedicates between 30 to 40 hours a week — lists incomplete data. He only posts casualties when he is able to confirm them, either through government or media reports.

“I get a lot of e-mails from people telling me this person died, or that person, but if I can’t find an independent report,” he said, “I just can’t post it.”

As such, his tally of 414 contractor deaths as of Friday is woefully lower that the latest data reported by the Department of Labor, which tallied 1,001 contractors for American firms killed in Iraq, and 80 in Afghanistan.

Labor Department figures are based on worker’s compensation claims filed by injured workers or family members of those killed or incapacitated. If no claim is filed, White pointed out, or no statement is released by the company, the death or injury goes unreported.

The Pentagon has said roughly 125,000 contractors work for the U.S. government and other agencies in Iraq, providing services from security to food, logistical support, maintenance and intelligence reports. The Pentagon reported Aug. 7 the number of servicemembers in Iraq has reached 162,000, the highest level of the war.

The Defense Department does not track or report civilian contractor deaths.

When asked why, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith replied: “We just don’t,” and referred questions to the individual services to see if they did. They don’t.

It’s not just civilian contractor deaths that might escape public notification.

Many are barred from speaking publicly about their work, with the restrictions part of their employment contracts.

Some companies issue news releases when a contractor is killed. For example, DynCorp International issued a news release when a rocket-propelled grenade killed contractor and retired Air Force Col. Michael Butler in June near Tikrit.

The release made his family’s suffering public, said his widow, Joanne Butler. At first, she was jarred by the media attention as she grieved for her husband of 22 years.

But the public also got a chance to know what kind of man he had been, and the work he performed organizing, training, equipping and mentoring the Iraqi police force.

“I don’t have many thoughts on this, but he was a good man, a great father,” and, she said, “people know.”

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