A new report from the Rand Corp. has found that private military contractors who work in conflict zones suffer higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than members of the military do. The number of contractors—armed and otherwise—working for the U.S. government and military ramped up sharply with the invasion and extended involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the Rand paper points out, the Department of Defense alone “employed 155,826 contractors alongside 152,275 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008 and 94,413 contractors alongside 91,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010.” And now, as the U.S. has pulled out of both countries, contractors have filled the void, providing security and logistics support for the American and other foreign government officials who remain there.
The report surveyed 660 contractors. Two-thirds of them were Americans, a quarter were British, the rest were from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere. The authors found that 25 percent of them met the criteria for PTSD, compared with estimated PTSD rates among U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan of between 4 percent and 20 percent. Almost as many (18 percent) of the contractors also screened positive for depression and 10 percent reported high-risk drinking.
Since the majority of the contractors had previously served in the military, it’s possible that their PTSD was a legacy of that service. But the study also found that how much combat a contractor was exposed to on the job correlated with probable PTSD, suggesting that the contracting work itself was at least partly to blame. And while it’s also possible that PTSD is underreported among soldiers, the American military has made a concerted push in recent years to destigmatize PTSD and help soldiers and veterans deal with it. The majority of the contractors suffering from it, the Rand study found, were not being treated.
The great benefit of contractors, from the government’s point of view, is that they can be hired when necessary, then let go when no longer needed. The government isn’t responsible for their health-care costs, or paying them a pension long after the war they served in. The Rand paper drives home that for the contractors themselves, though, the costs continue.