Wounded In Wars, Civilians Face Care Battle At Home Public-interest watchdog T. Christian Miller talks about the challenges military-contractor employees face in getting medical treatment after returning from conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Wounded In Wars, Civilians Face Care Battle At Home

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Wounded In Wars, Civilians Face Care Battle At Home

Wounded In Wars, Civilians Face Care Battle At Home

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military has relied on private contractors more than any wars in the past. There have been many investigations into these companies. But behind these corporate facades, says my guest T. Christian Miller, are civilian employees on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan who are being shot at and blown up in the course of work.

Miller wanted to know what happens to these civilian contractors after they've been injured, without access to the medical system military veterans are provided. For example, Miller found one civilian contractor who lost his leg in Baghdad, had to fight his insurance company for a year to get a good prosthetic leg, and then this man said: It's almost like we're this invisible, discardable military.

T. Christian Miller has titled his investigative series, "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." Miller is an investigative reporter for ProPublica, and before that was with the L.A. Times. His series has been published on ProPublica's Web site, with articles also appearing in the L.A. Times and Salon. Miller also wrote a book about private military contractors called "Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq."

T. Christian Miller, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, you write that some civilian contractors and their families have been reluctant to speak out about the health insurance coverage problems they've been having because they're afraid of being labeled as mercenaries or war profiteers. And I think they have a case there, that they might be labeled that. Do you agree, that a lot of people just think of these people as mercenaries and don't care - don't think much beyond that?

Mr. T. CHRISTIAN MILLER (Author, "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan," "Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq"): Yes, I think you're absolutely right. I think a lot of people - to the degree they think about contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan at all - I think the first images, the first ideas that come to mind, are the Blackwater incidents, the violence, some of the waste and fraud and abuse.

And what I really wanted to do with this story is, I wanted to put a space between the employees who are working for these companies and the corporations themselves, and I want to kind of draw a distinction between those two issues.

Yes, some of these contractors carry weapons. Some of them have been involved in incidents where they have killed Iraqis and Afghan civilians. But really, the bulk of employees in Iraq and Afghanistan, right now, are kind of ordinary, everyday folks who are doing things like delivering mail and cleaning laundry, picking up trash and serving meals.

These are guys who are over there, they've been hired to do a job, they're supporting the soldiers. So what do we owe them? What do we owe this set of people who has been hired and outsourced by the U.S. government to support the American war effort?

And I just wanted to kind of explore that whole area of the side of the contracting and the contract workers you don't hear about. We hear a lot about the 30,000 or so armed security contractors. You don't hear a lot about the 170,000 other people who are just doing ordinary, everyday jobs.

GROSS: Has writing this series given you any insights to why Americans become civilian contractors and risk their lives for a salary, to work in Iraq or Afghanistan? Like, who does that and why?

Mr. MILLER: Certainly it has. One of the things that sort of opened my eyes - I mean, when you talk about civilian contractors, the first thing that always comes up is: These guys made a lot of money over in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Certainly, for a lot of those people, it's true. Their salary is tripled or doubled, and making $120,000 as a truck driver was not unheard of in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what people constantly told me was, they needed the job.

If you wanted to live out the American dream and be able to afford college for your kids and put braces on your daughter's teeth and put a down payment on a home, the idea was you go over to Iraq and Afghanistan for a year or two, and you can make enough money to be able to do that.

Now, you may have sympathy with that or not, but that was often - the belief was that we can make enough money to get ahead.

There was also, concomitant with that, a strong, usually, dedication to country. There was a lot of patriotism involved, and many contractors were former military people, or they were police officers. They were firefighters. They were teachers and construction workers, and they saw this as a way to help the American war effort.

But those two motives - there was almost always a patriotism motive, and there was always often the motive that you could make some money and finally get ahead in your life. And so, those were typically the people who volunteered for this.

They tended to be from rural areas. They tended to be from the Midwest and the South, areas that don't have as great an economy right now, areas that do tend to have a lot of retired military. And that was very much the pool that these contractors came from in this country.

GROSS: Well, let's start talking specifically about health insurance. The contract workers are insured by private companies. It's not government insurance, and the kind of insurance that they get is determined by a law from 1940. And you've been writing about that. I don't think - hardly anybody knows about this. So would you explain the law that regulates what kind of insurance the private contractors get?

Mr. MILLER: Sure. It's a law called the Defense Base Act, and it was first passed in the 1940s. And at the time - for a little bit of history on this issue of contractors and their participation on the battlefield - at the time there were about 1,000 contractors who were captured on Wake Island while they were building up military bases in U.S. - on Wake Island in preparation for the war, World War II.

So at the time, 1,000 of these civilian contractors were captured by the Japanese and held prisoner of war, and the question was: Well, what happens to these people?

And so Congress passed the Defense Base Act, and it was a very rudimentary law, which is essentially kind of a worker's compensation law. And what it does is, it requires any defense contractor who's working for the U.S. government in a war zone to purchase worker's compensation for their employees.

Now, the original idea was that these people would be suffering typical workplace injuries like slipping and falling. In reality, what has occurred is the civilian contractors have been suffering horrific war zone-type injuries, such as having their legs blown off, or having psychological conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

And so this Defense Base Act law essentially requires a defense contractor to purchase insurance for a workplace that is actually a war zone. And the problems that these civilian workers have had in having medical payments paid for a new prosthetic leg, for instance, is because that was never contemplated under the law, that somebody who is working for a defense contractor would need two new prosthetic legs or would need three decades' worth of psychological counseling to overcoming a post traumatic stress-type injury which occurred when they were involved in a horrible roadside bombing.

And so what you've had is this Defense Base Act law was written, designed for a situation which no longer exists and has mushroomed far beyond what anybody ever thought it was designed to handle.

GROSS: So why are we still using it, if it's so inappropriate to the situation our contractors are in now?

Mr. MILLER: I think there's two reasons for that. The first reason is because I think it's taken a long time to build up enough - a body of injuries and a body of deaths to even raise an awareness that this law is out there and that people are using it. I just think there's been a long lag time in realizing or anybody paying attention to it.

But I also think there is something with the fact that we as a society don't really have a place, socially, for a civilian war veteran. We know how to treat veterans, and we know what their status is, and there's a Veteran Affairs Department, and it's part of the president's Cabinet, and there's a VA system to deal with them.

If you were somebody who signed up to be an interpreter for a U.S. soldier, and you were killed next to that soldier while translating for them, you're not a veteran but neither are you, I don't think, an ordinary, everyday worker. What are you socially?

How are we supposed to treat that person when we see them on the street or at a party or at church, and the minister says, OK, everybody stand up now so we can recognize our veterans? What then, about all the people in the audience who may have served over in Iraq and Afghanistan but were not soldiers in the military. What happens to them? What do you say to them? And I don't think we have a good handle on it.

GROSS: Now, getting back to the insurance. Now it sounds like the contractors, the contracting corporations, buy an insurance policy with an insurance company. And so contractors, individual contractors working for different companies, probably have different insurance policies?

Mr. MILLER: Right. What the law says is every defense contractor has to purchase this specialized type of workers' compensation insurance for their employees. It's up to the contract company to purchase the insurance. As it so happens, they actually don't have a lot of choices.

AIG sells almost all of the policies which comply with the Defense Base Act. They sell about 80 to 85 percent of the policies that cover worker injuries. It's a very specialized type of insurance because it's in a war zone.

So yes, the contract companies are told to go buy this insurance. In point of fact, they usually end up buying it from AIG and a handful of other companies, like CNA is another one, and Zurich is yet another one - and they buy that insurance.

Ultimately, that's paid for by us, by taxpayers, because we fund the contract, and so the contractor buys the insurance, and then we pay for the total price of that contract, which includes the insurance. So we end up funding this insurance policy.

GROSS: You write in your series that early in the Iraq War, it cost taxpayers $100,000 per year to insure a civilian contractor who was paid $100,000 per year. So the insurance was the same amount as the salary.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, that's why I'm saying these prices were just astronomical. I mean, there's no workers' comp insurance anywhere that has that much of a premium. You can look at some of the most dangerous professions in the U.S., like the fishing industry or the construction industry, and those companies aren't paying anything like one dollar for insurance for every one dollar of salary. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, they could charge that because there wasn't a market.

Another very peculiar part of this particular story is that because of another law, the U.S. actually reimburses the insurance companies for any civilians who are injured in a combat situation.

So at the very end, the insurance company will ultimately submit the bill to the U.S. government, and they will get paid back for any injury involving a combat wound.

GROSS: Let me ask a stupid question: What is the point of the insurance company if taxpayers are paying for the premium and then also paying for the medical bill?

Mr. MILLER: I don't think that's a stupid question at all. I think that's a very relevant question. The Pentagon, just this summer, finally released a report which addressed that, and they essentially said why don't we just self-insure, like we do in any other field that we're involved with? And the Pentagon's suggestion was that the Pentagon provided the money to pay for these injuries, since they're going to pay for it one way or the other anyway, but remove the level of the private insurance company. Nobody's actually done anything about that. No senator's office or representative's office has picked that up, but the savings were several hundred million dollars a year - could have been saved if that reform was made.

GROSS: My guest is T. Christian Miller, an investigative reporter for ProPublica. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is T. Christian Miller, an investigative reporter with ProPublica. His series, "Disposable Army," is about civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan who return home with war injuries and have to fight for the medical care they were promised.

GROSS: So let's compare what the situation is for a military person, and for a civilian contractor who's injured in a war zone. So the military person, they have the whole military health-care system behind there, and they have military planes to transport - if they've gotten their legs blown off, they have a military helicopter to transport them to a hospital and then to take them home, and they have a military hospital, hopefully with state-of-the-art equipment and prosthetics to help them.

So you're a civilian contractor. Your legs are blown off. How do you even get out of the war zone? Does the military helicopter take you out, or are you on your own?

Mr. MILLER: Well, because there is no overall system in place, it very much depends upon where you are and when it happens. If you happen to be fortunate enough - I guess is not a good word - but if you happen to be with the U.S. military when your legs are blown off, you will at least be given military transport out of the country to a military hospital - if you're an American -and will be discharged eventually to an American hospital.

So if, however, you happen to be driving from Point A to Point B and your legs are blown off, then it's up to your contract company - hopefully, has arranged some means to evacuate you out of the country.

If you happen to be a third-country national or an Iraqi or Afghan, you may be taken to a local hospital, whose standards of care are nowhere near what are in the United States or nowhere near what the military is going to receive. And worse, since you've been clearly identified as having been working with the U.S. military, you run the risk of being targeted by insurgents and actually being killed in the hospital or as soon as you return home, because the insurgents will go after you as somebody who collaborated.

So in many ways, there is no system at all for these people, and it depends very much on who you are and where you are and what happens, if you're able to get medical care.

GROSS: Say you're an American civilian contractor, you've had your legs blown off, you return home, you need prosthetics, you need physical therapy, you need a whole lot of health care.

Mr. MILLER: Then if you're an American civilian contractor who has been - had his legs blown off, you will go through the military system, and as soon as you are stabilized, you will be discharged to an American hospital. Hopefully,�

GROSS: But you do go through the military system first?

Mr. MILLER: You will be stabilized under an emergency care policy. So you will have your - yes, the bleeding will be stopped, and they will make sure that you're in stable condition before discharging you. So that can be a number - three or four days, or it can be several weeks, but you will eventually be discharged to an American hospital for all the fitting of prosthetic devices, the psychological counseling, the physical therapy. All that will be done by the American - like a private hospital, like any other private hospital. You essentially become a car accident victim at that stage of the game, and that's how you will appear to the medical system, as somebody who has been in some horrible car accident.

GROSS: Now, you have written about a lot of people who have had trouble getting reimbursement for their expenses, or getting approval for the prosthetic legs that they need. What's the process like for a civilian contractor who has to get approval for - let's use the example of the prosthetic leg.

Mr. MILLER: For instance, I talked to a South Carolina retired police officer, a sheriff's deputy named Tim Newman(ph), who had lost his leg in Iraq. And when he returned home, he received a prosthetic leg, but it wasn't very good. It didn't fit him. So he had to - he wanted to get a more modern prosthetic leg, a more up-to-date one. And it took him, I believe, almost a year of basically asking his insurance company, saying, would you please approve a better prosthetic leg to help me be able to walk up stairs on my own?

And it took him - he actually had to take the insurance company through a court process until he finally got a court ruling which said yes, you, insurance company, have to pay for Tim Newman's new prosthetic leg. But imagine going through a year of just not knowing the answer to that, or having to fight for that.

The American military system, medical system, definitely has flaws, but there's a system in place to address these kinds of issues that just doesn't even exist at all. We can't even complain about or talk about flaws in the system for civilian contractors because there is no system, really, to talk about.

GROSS: So is the example that you just gave of the person for whom it took a year to get the leg that he needed, is that a typical story, or is that atypical?

Mr. MILLER: I can't really tell you with any certainty whether or not it's typical or atypical, because there is no large body of knowledge of amputee victims and what they've had to go through.

I know that the amputees that I have talked to have recounted similar stories in terms of getting such things as additional fittings of like, a sleeve that goes over between your prosthetic leg and your limb, and have trouble that way.

I haven't talked, though, and I wouldn't represent that I had talked to all the amputees, so maybe there's a huge body of very happy, satisfied customers out there. But I know the individuals who I have encountered and I have talked to, almost all of them have had some sort of issue in dealing with these insurance companies, And it's not always the insurance companies' fault.

I mean, a lot of these individuals were injured in a war zone. You've got to be able to prove that your injury occurred, that you need this type of a device, and those are all demands that are built into any typical insurance system. And so these people are dealing with a medical insurance system which is designed for a workplace, but is actually addressing the wounds and injuries and deaths that happen on a battlefield.

GROSS: Now, you write that, I think, 50 percent of the claims for post-traumatic stress disorder are turned down by the private insurance companies that insure civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. So how does that compare to the rate that the military medical system turns down?

Mr. MILLER: Well, here's an important distinction to make between the two systems. The military system, everyone who has - claims they have PTSD has access to a military doctor. The problems come in when they also claim they were disabled by that injury.

So a soldier has - although it may take some time - he or she has access to a psychologist or a therapist to help them. They may or may not get disability pay for that, but they have access to medical care.

For the civilian-contractor set, both those issues are up for a debate, and a civilian contractor may apply for a therapy session, and it will not be approved for them, and they will never get the therapy session unless they take their insurance company to court.

This is the single largest issue that you see, the insurance company struggling with PTSD. PTSD is, by its nature, a difficult condition to diagnose. It's a psychological condition. It's certainly not something you see in a workplace on an everyday basis, much more common in a war zone.

So the insurance companies are having to struggle with: How do we pay for these expensive, long-term psychological treatments that may be necessary in this case? How do we, you know, deal with that and address that issue? And so these private insurance companies have essentially become a private VA system for the civilian contractors who have had psychological injuries.

GROSS: T. Christian Miller will be back in the second half of the show. He's an investigative reporter with ProPublica. His series is called "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with T. Christian Miller, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization. He's written a series of articles called "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." It's about civilians working with private military companies who have been injured in war zones while supporting the American military but don't have access to the veteran health-care system, and often have to fight for the medical benefits they are owed. Miller is a former L.A. Times reporter. He's covered four wars; he covered Iraqi reconstruction and wrote the 2006 book about private military companies called "Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq."

I know you don't have exact numbers on this, but how common do you think it is that civilian contractors are denied claims, or denied coverage for things as essential as a prosthetic leg?

Mr. MILLER: Well, what you'll find that - we found when we analyzed information on these insurance claims that we got from the Labor Department after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and the Labor Department, which administers the system and keeps track of the system to a very minimal degree, showed that that data - showed that about - almost one of every two claims gets some kind of a denial from the insurance industry, which is much higher than a typical insurance industry denial rate.

So one of every two claims, they'll hit some hostility, where they'll get some pushback from the insurance company saying we can't pay for your treatment now, or we'll pay for it later, or we'll never pay for it. And that's the best we could do in terms of being able to explore this world, is that we know that there's been this initial denial, at least, almost one of every two times. I think the figure was 44 percent of the time.

Now, that's just for people who file claims. A lot of contractors don't know about this insurance at all, especially those that we've hired from overseas. They don't even know to file a claim. So there's a number of individuals out there who are sick or wounded or injured, who are owed medical treatment or who are owed benefits, and are not getting them at all.

GROSS: Now why don't they know that they have this coverage? Do the contracting companies intentionally not tell their employees?

Mr. MILLER: I don't think that's - that certainly could happen sometimes. What I think is much more common is the following scenario: It's a little known fact that two-thirds of the civilian workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan are foreigners, people from other countries like Iraq, from Afghanistan, local laborers hired there, people who are imported from Third World countries like the Philippines - and that makes up the bulk of the contracting force. They're generally working to clean clothes or serve meals. They're - nonetheless, often suffer injuries because they'll - mortars will fall into a camp, or they'll be going from one place to another and they'll be attacked.

Those individuals simply don't know about the system because they've never been told about it. They never heard about it, the Labor Department's made no effort to contact them, they may be subcontractors of subcontractors of subcontractors. So they simply don't know the system exists, and there's no easy way to find out about it, either. So you have an enormous number of people out there who are simple ignorant of their rights. And what's, I think, saddest about that is that taxpayers have actually paid the price to cover those people. We've already paid for their insurance, but they're not taking advantage of it. And so that money is going to stay in the hands of companies like AIG and CNA, who don't have to pay out on those claims.

GROSS: You also found instances where people were basically pressured -civilian contractors were pressured to accept a settlement instead of what they were actually insured for, which was more of a lifetime benefit.

Mr. MILLER: Right. I think those are some of the - some of the saddest cases of all involve Iraqis and Afghans who went to work to translate for American troops. The U.S. troops need to be able to understand the locals and - when they do their counterinsurgency work or when they're just going about a market town. So they were often hired - defense contractors would hire locals to translate for these troops. They worked right alongside them, they drove in the same vehicles, they worked with them 24 hours a day.

When those guys got injured or were attacked, they were often with the soldiers. So there was some system where they would file a claim. What then happened is, you have the insurance company come and say well, we'll give you $5,000. We'll give you $10,000 to settle off. Sign this piece of paper, and we're done with you. And to an Afghan villager or to an Iraqi villager, that seemed like a lot of money when if they had had full access to the system, had, you know, had some knowledge of what the system was, that claim would typically have been paid off for, let's say, $100,000 - they may have taken something like $10,000 or $50,000 for it. And so they ended up receiving far less money than they were actually owed.

GROSS: So you're writing about how some Iraqi and Afghani interpreters had been taken advantage of and right now, we need a lot more interpreters in Afghanistan because we have more troops there to interpret for; the war has escalated there. So do you think things are improving for the translators?

Mr. MILLER: No, not at all. I think this is a problem that's going to get a lot worse before it gets better and that's because these people literally have, although they are translators, they have no voice; there's no translators of Afghanistan and Iraq lobby in Washington. So there's nobody who's really paying any attention to their medical needs, their benefits, any of the monies they're getting. So it's a completely unregulated system, an unregulated place, and they don't have any real access to the system.

And so until that changes, until somebody cares enough or pays enough attention, these Afghans and Iraqis who have worked with U.S. troops, and often helped them greatly, will kind of remain a disposable army. They just - we have hired them, they've been injured, and then they go back to their villages where they suffer by themselves.

GROSS: You traveled around the world for your research for this series. Tell us something that - very revealing, that you were only able to find by going to another country.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, this is an argument for - what ProPublica does is, we're a nonprofit investigative newsroom, and we were founded because of the belief that there's a need for investigative journalism, which often costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. In this particular case, for instance, I went to the Philippines and - to find some widows of civilians, Filipino civilians who'd worked for - serving meals for soldiers. They had been killed. And I essentially had to go trolling through slums in the Philippines, trying to kind of find, do you know who this woman is? You know, I have a name that someone else gave me. Can you direct me to this house?

And so the most striking moment to me was when we ended up at the house of a woman who owned a small store, and her husband had been killed while working for the U.S. military in Baghdad. She didn't know anything about the system; she never filed for benefits; the husband was kind of the sole breadwinner for the family. And that particular evening, she had sent her children out to go look for snails in local ponds and ditches because they had no food.

And it was this moment of sort of clarity where you realize, is that really what you want to stand for as a country, that we're going to hire impoverished people from Third World countries that are illiterate and have no idea about this system, and just throw them away after they've been killed or injured. And to me, that was the moment when I realized that this was an important story and one that takes time and effort. And both the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica have kind of shown, you know, a commitment to getting that story done and in the paper.

GROSS: What should this widow have been eligible for?

Mr. MILLER: She would have been eligible for two-thirds of her husband's salary for the rest of her life - for her life. Now, that's not a lot of money by our standards. If I recall correctly, he was making about $25,000 or $30,000 a year. But in the Philippines, 20,000 U.S. dollars a year is quite a lot of money. So it would've made all the difference in the world for this woman and her children to receive that amount of money and instead, she hadn't received anything - didn't even know about the system at all.

GROSS: And did she file for that claim after she found out from you?

Mr. MILLER: Yes. She has filed for that claim now, and it's going through the process. It takes a long time to just file the claim and get it approved and done and she has - she's still waiting.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is investigative reporter T. Christian Miller, and we're talking about a series that he's written called "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan."

We'll talk more with him about the series, and about the problems that civilian contractors are having getting their medical benefit after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is T. Christian Miller. He's an investigative reporter for ProPublica, formerly worked with the Los Angeles Times. He's the author of a book about private contractors called "Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq."

Recently, he's been writing a series of articles called "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." And this series is about civilian contractors, people who are civilians who work for these contracting companies in war zones, and who are supposed to be collecting health insurance but don't necessarily get what they are owed. And he's investigating the whole health insurance system for private contractors, for civilian contractors.

The nature of war and who fights war in our country has changed. I mean, granted, the civilian contractor positions are supposed to be support positions and not combat positions, but they get injured as if they were in combat -frequently. But I mean, there was a time when the military did the support work, too, and that time, part of that time was a time of the draft, so it wasn't a question of a volunteer Army. And there were more people to draw on. But what are some of the larger questions you think we're facing now, because we have such reliance on civilian contractors in our war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

It initially seemed like oh, it was going to be more cost-effective. But listening to you talk about, you know, the health insurance issues, it sounds like it's actually probably more expensive on that front. So let's just look at the money for one second. I mean, do you think we're spending more or less or the same, by contracting out a lot of the work?

Mr. MILLER: Well, let me take that in two parts, Terry, because I think you have hit on the single biggest question, which is: What is the overall issue with hiring people to fight this war? And I think the single biggest answer to that is, you actually hide the cost of the war. You hide the cost of the war in terms of the human cost. There's been 1,700 contractors killed. Who ever has even heard that? That number is not tallied up officially anywhere.

And then you hide the cost of the expense of fighting it, because who knows how much money has actually been spent contracting this out, and who knows how much money is eventually going to be spent paying for these people? And the answer is, nobody knows. Nobody really knows that answer.

To answer your specific question about the cost of this, contracting, the studies that I've read say that on a very short-term basis, there usually is a cost savings in hiring contractors. But we've been in Iraq and Afghanistan now for eight years - Afghanistan for eight years. I don't know that I've seen any studies that suggests that it still makes sense to contract out every single function, as many as we have done for eight years, and you still expect to see a cost savings to the government.

GROSS: What other questions does our reliance on civilian contractors raise for you? You've been researching private military contractors for years now.

Mr. MILLER: I think the biggest unanswered question is: What, if anything, does American society owe to the people we have hired to fight this war? And by that I mean, we know there's a very robust system for veterans, and I don't want to compare veterans and contractors. They're different for many, many reasons. But it also seems to me that if civilian contractors are not veterans, which they're not, they're - neither are they people who sat on their hands and did nothing to help the U.S. war effort. They went over to help the U.S. war effort. Yes, they were paid well; many of them were paid very well. But is that all? Are we then done? And is that we, as a democracy, are we comfortable with that? Are we comfortable that if you lost both your legs with a soldier but were paid well, that we owe you no more consideration than that? And one of the people that I talked to said he believes that the civilian contractors are kind of like the Vietnam veterans in the '70s and '60s, which is there was - people were angry at the - some of the soldiers that came back.

And I think we, as a society, learned that you don't want to be angry at an individual soldier. You can be angry at the war and the people who prosecuted the war, but an individual soldier - it's rare that you see somebody sort of spit at an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran. But the civilian contractors are still reviled to a certain degree, in certain quarters, as being war mercenaries or as being profiteers. And so they have taken the function of anger onto themselves now. And I don't really know, ultimately, how that's going to play out. But I think that's a big unanswered question, which is how do these people socially fit in, who have the experience of war but are not soldiers?

GROSS: T, you've been doing some really amazing reporting in this series, relying on the Freedom of Information Act, getting access to databases, traveling around the world, interviewing people. And you've been doing this through ProPublica. And, you know, a lot of newspapers have cut - severely cut their investigative staffs because investigative reporting is so expensive and time-consuming. And when people say, well, where is the investigative reporting going to be in the future, a lot of people point to the model of ProPublica as an example of a system that could work. Would you tell us a little about that model from your perspective, as a reporter?

Mr. MILLER: Yes. I'm very, very happy to be employed by ProPublica, but I don't think that ProPublica, or any model like that, is ever going to be able to replace the role of American newspapers and American television stations in investigating corruption. ProPublica is a nonprofit. We're funded by primarily the Sandler Foundation. And there are 30 of us in a newsroom in New York which work with other mainstream groups to do investigative journalism. Although we are the largest investigative newsroom of this kind, it hardly - there's hardly enough of us to replace the tens of thousands of journalists who have been laid off over the past several years in the face of the decline of American journalism.

So, I think we are an answer. I think we help fill the gap that has been left. But I don't think that ultimately, nonprofit foundations like ours are going to be able to replace all the great journalism that's being done, or has been done, by the American news industry over the past several decades. So I can't tell you ultimately where all this is headed. I just know that there is a dearth of investigative journalism that a functioning democracy must have filled in order to operate. I don't know where that's going to come from.

GROSS: Well, T. Christian Miller, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks so much for having me, Terry. I appreciate it very much.

GROSS: T. Christian Miller is an investigative reporter with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. His series is called, "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan." You can find a link to his ProPublica series on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.

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