Iraq Contractors Convene in Tennessee

The first meeting of contractors who have served in Iraq was held in Tennessee this weekend. The event aimed to give contractors a chance to discuss their experiences and get advice for adjusting to life back at home.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Imagine you're driving down a narrow street in Iraq in a convoy of trucks, when suddenly, you're ambushed. Your buddy - the guy right in front of you - is dragged from his truck and shot.

Mr. PRESTON WHEELER (Employee, KBR): They just killed him.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. WHEELER: Oh, Jesus.

BURBANK: This is tape from 2005. The man you hear, Preston Wheeler, was working for the contractor, KBR. He survived - barely. But some of his co-workers didn't.

And Wheeler's experience isn't all that unique. There are an estimated 100,000 civilians working in Iraq. And they say just like soldiers, they face the possibility of getting shot or maimed or even killed. But they don't have the support system that the soldiers have.

Well, a woman named Jana Crowder is doing what she can to help. This past weekend, she got a group of injured contractors together in Knoxville, Tennessee. Ann Lloyd was there and has this report.

ANN LLOYD: Jana Crowder readily admits she's not a therapist or doctor, just the housewife of a contractor who cares about the fate of those injured in Iraq. About 15 people from around the country made it to the gathering.

She says most are abandoned by their employers once they get hurt or discover they're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms. JANA CROWDER (Organizer of American Contractors in Iraq Meeting): One of the things that the contractors are lacking are what the military guys get when they come back from the war zone, which is a debriefing, because a lot of them don't even realize that they suffer from PTSD.

LLOYD: Crowder is the sole contact most of the contractors have for comfort or understanding once they return home. At one point during the meeting, she insists on talking in the ladies' room so no one can see her cry.

Ms. CROWDER: I even have contractors calling me at 12, one, three, five in the morning - one after another - three, four times a day, the same person. Some days, I just feel like I'm losing them.

LLOYD: Although Crowder has no firm numbers, she says the suicide rate of contractors returning from Iraq is quite high. One of the injured contractors at Saturday's meeting was Robert Rho(ph), a truck driver from Marion, Ohio.

Mr. ROBERT RHO (Truck Driver; Former Contractor in Iraq): They push you off to the insurance company. You've got to fight them hand over fist just trying to get help. By that time, people are losing their homes, can't work, they're not having no compensation come in to help pay bills.

And I've been hearing a lot of people been taking their lives.

LLOYD: Edward Bryant(ph) from Parksville, Tennessee spent a year in Iraq. He was also a truck driver. His vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb.

Mr. EDWARD BRYANT (Truck Driver; Former Contractor in Iraq): I got hit by some all - in this arm. And then I lost 70 percent of the hearing in my left ear. I've lost a great deal of my eyesight. I had really good vision. I can't even read a book now hardly without glasses on.

Ms. TANYA BRYANT (Wife of Edward Bryant): He's a big boy. He made his own decision. I just supported him.

LLOYD: Tanya is Edward's wife. Because of his injuries, he'll never be able to work again. Together, they struggle to get the medical help he needs. Like Rho, he worked for Kellogg, Brown and Root, the largest American contracting company in Iraq.

Bryant became successful only by taking his case to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. Once the senator's office got involved, the company agreed to pay for a portion of Bryant's expenses.

For his physical injuries, the specter of PTSD lingers on.

Ms. CROWDER: I don't know what I can offer these guys, except just being there listening to them and trying to convince them to keep living, like I said. I lie to them. I tell them the pain will go away. I'd lie. I lie. I lie.

LLOYD: But one bit of real hope was offered by Dr. E.C. Hurley. He spoke at the gathering. Hurley is a psychotherapist who works with soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, suffering from PTSD.

Hurley uses a relatively new therapeutic tool. It's called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. He says the therapy is nothing like hypnosis. It helps disrupt traumatic memories so the mind can then deal with them in a healthy way.

Dr. E.C. HURLEY (Psychotherapist): I think it's very important that we have a new understanding of how to treat PTSD these days. This is no longer the Vietnam era, where people are told this is something you've got to live with.

LLOYD: Hurley says EMDR is effective in reducing and even eliminating posttraumatic stress for 85 percent or more of patients after only a few sessions. Hurley shared information about a national network of doctors who successfully use the therapy with combat veterans and are willing to help them - often on a pro bono basis.

Yet even with this good news, there are thousands of injured contractors living without a safety net. That's why Jana Crowder is passionate about helping them through her Web site, American Contractors in Iraq.

Ms. CROWDER: I tell them they have every right to be angry, every right to be mad, and it's okay to cry.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Lloyd in Knoxville.

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