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Civilian Drivers Feel Neglected After Working in Iraq

Unarmed and untrained for combat, civilian truck drivers who haul freight between military bases in Iraq find themselves on the war's frontlines. At least 63 -- including 24 Americans -- have died so far, mostly from shootings and roadside bombs. The constant exposure to violence puts the contractors at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. And some complain they're forgotten once they return home.

Last August, driver David Meredith found what little was left of the body of Larry Stilwell, a fellow trucker who died when his flatbed truck hit a homemade landmine in central Iraq. The trauma of that event, plus the death of a second driver he knew in a roadside bombing, led Meredith to quit as a driver for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Today, Meredith is back home in Leavenworth, Kan., driving a truck again. But he says he hasn't been the same since the August incident. Meredith complains of frequent flashbacks, angry outbursts, and an exaggerated startle response.

A local doctor concluded that Meredith is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite that diagnosis, KBR's insurance company, AIG WorldSource, denied Meredith's claim, saying there's no medical evidence.

Sixteen percent of Marines and soldiers returning from Iraq screen positive for PTSD. No one has studied contractors.

Dr. Dean Kilpatrick, of the Medical University of South Carolina, has studied military veterans with PTSD for 25 years. He says that people who work in "very unpredictable, very high-risk situations in which an attack may come at any time" show a higher risk of PTSD. "So I would expect to find the same thing among the truck drivers."

Houston attorney Gary Pitts represents contract workers injured overseas. He says scores of his clients report symptoms of combat fatigue, such as insomnia, jumpiness, anxiety and emotional remoteness. But often they don't get help because the support system is not there, he says.

A KBR spokesperson wrote in an e-mail response that all employees have access to the company's in-country employee assistance program, which is staffed with licensed mental health counselors.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.