BY SETH BORENSTEIN
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - As the nation focused last week on the 2,000th U.S. soldier who died in Iraq, Gloria Dagit of Jefferson, Iowa, got a box filled with the belongings of her son, Keven, who was killed when his convoy of trucks was ambushed in northern Iraq.
Keven Dagit's death Sept. 20 - along with two other truckers - didn't register on the tally of Iraq deaths broadcast daily. That's because they were civilians working for U.S. defense contractors.
As the violence of the protracted war continues and some 75,000 civilian employees struggle to rebuild the war-torn nation and support the military, contractor casualties mount. Their deaths have more than tripled in the past 13 months.
As of Monday, 428 civilian contractors had been killed in Iraq and another 3,963 were injured, according to Department of Labor insurance-claims statistics obtained by Knight Ridder.
Those statistics, which experts said were the most comprehensive listing available on the toll of the war, are far from complete: Two of the biggest contractors in Iraq said their casualties were higher than the figures the Labor Department had for them.
The dead and injured come from many walks of life, drawn by money and patriotism. Some are American citizens. Most are not. They are truckers, police officers and translators. They're counted only if they were paid by companies hired by the Pentagon. Their deaths and injuries were compensated by insurance policies required by federal law.
The Labor Department lists 156 dead for an L-3 Communications subsidiary in Virginia. The company, which provides translators who work with the military, puts the death toll at 167, of whom 15 were Americans. The Labor Department's accounting reports that Halliburton, the largest contractor in Iraq, has had 30 employees killed in Iraq and 2,471 injured. A Halliburton spokeswoman, Melissa Norcross, said Tuesday that the company had lost a total of 77 workers in Iraq, Afghanistan and its base in Kuwait. One worker is unaccounted for. Halliburton couldn't give a breakdown by country.
The government's listing shows the contractors' casualty rate is increasing. In the first 21 months of the war, 11 contractors were killed and 74 injured each month on average. This year, the monthly average death toll is nearly 20 and the average monthly number of injured is 243.
"You've got a greater number of contractors on the ground carrying out a greater number of roles putting them in danger," said Peter W. Singer, a contracting expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. "And issue No. 3, you've got a much more dangerous environment."
Keven Dagit, a truck driver for Halliburton, knew it. The day before he was killed he told his mother, "Now, it's really getting dangerous," she recalled.
He left two daughters, ages 9 and 11.
"I want more people to realize that these guys are out there defenseless," Gloria Dagit said. "It was an ambush. ... They are not allowed to carry weapons."
So far this year, 196 contractors in Iraq have been killed and 2,427 have been injured, according to Labor Department statistics.
In August, Mike Dawes of Stillwell, Okla., a longtime police officer who'd been hired to train Iraqi police, was killed by a suicide bomber in downtown Baqoubah, 36 miles northeast of Baghdad. He'd worked for DynCorp International and had survived as a private contractor in Kosovo, where he also taught police from Poland, India and Pakistan. He described that experience as "really an honor."
Dawes "was an excellent officer," said Stephen Farmer, the police chief at the Tahlequah Police Department in Oklahoma. "If he wasn't the first one there on the call, he was usually the one right behind."
The invisible nature of the contractors' deaths irks their friends and families.
"We get hurt right next to them in many cases," said Erick Fern, a Houston trucker for Halliburton who injured his back in Iraq and is fighting to get compensation. "It seems to be that we don't exist since we're getting paid."
Private companies aren't obligated to report deaths to the news media, as the military does. But they're required to carry federal insurance for all their workers in Iraq and to report claims to the Labor Department under the Defense Base Act. That doesn't include contractors who work for agencies outside of the Pentagon, however.
"Most of what you see on TV is strictly about the military," said Steve Powell of Azle, Texas, who worked for Halliburton in the Iraqi city of Mosul and watched friends get killed. "There's very little said about the contractors. ... I felt like I was over there doing something to help the military in a way."
Rick Kiernan, a spokesman for L-3 Communications, said his firm had had so many losses because its translators were "with the combatants; they're with the special forces; they're with the infantry units. That probably puts them out in the most dangerous places."
Kiernan noted that L-3's employees aren't killed in combat, they're being assassinated. Of the company's 152 dead Iraqi employees, 105 were murdered because they collaborated with Americans, he said.
"They've been targeted," Kiernan said. "A lot of these local nationals are really doing their part as well in a very courageous way."
The workers' families also make sacrifices.
Yvette English, a pregnant Colorado woman with a 19-month-old daughter, helps run an Internet message board to assist families with loved ones in Iraq. Her husband is a Halliburton truck driver.
"While he's gone, it's very lonely," she said. "You didn't bargain in a marriage to be alone and be a single mom. Then again, you support your husbands and what they're doing. For them, it's a sense of duty."
Todd Drobnick of Everett, Wash., was one of the first American employees of L-3 to be killed, dying with two military personnel in a suicide bomb attack two years ago this month.
For his father, John Drobnick, his son's loss is still painful. "I was just crying today," he said.
"There are days I get angry, but that's not the way you honor someone; you go and do something decent," he said. So he and his wife, Sharon, plan to mark the second anniversary of their son's death by fixing up houses that Hurricane Katrina damaged in Louisiana.
"That's the kind of thing he would have done," John Drobnick said, weeping. "That's the reason he worked in the (Persian) Gulf. He was there five times. He went back because he loved the people, because he thought they needed help and he could help."