american-contractors-in-iraq

Imagine making $30,000 a month or more, and tax-free, I remember those hay days and remember some guys making upwards of $1,250 a day.  If there’s anything we’ve learned both geopolitically and militarily since 9-11, it’s that wars are being fought much, much differently, due in no small part to contractors augmenting the military in High Risk Areas.

As someone who worked as a contractor for one of the largest and most controversial companies in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, I can remember the plethora of different companies and compounds spread out all over the country, from Basra in the south all the way to Mosul up north where my compound was located.  Contractors were, and still are used extensively, throughout the Middle East, by some estimates almost 7,000 in Iraq alone.

Many contractors go over with a variety of training depending upon a multitude of factors such as, your company’s size, budget, training pipeline, contract your supporting etc.  For us you were either mobile or static i.e. you traveled in hard cars protecting the client or you stayed on the compound with LN’s (Local National’s) protecting the compound.  But what happens if you get injured while overseas?

The US Congress enacted the Defense Base Act on August 16, 1941, it is an extension of the federal workers compensation program that covers longshoremen and harbor workers.  It was designed to protect persons employed at United States defense bases overseas.  The DBA was designed to provide medical treatment and compensation to employees of defense contractors injured in the scope and course of employment.

Pic of my team and I in Iraq courtesy of Alex Popovic

Pic of Alex Popovic and his team in Iraq courtesy of Alex Popovic

Lets discuss what happens should you get injured, in any capacity, while overseas, and what’s the ensuing process that occurs.  The four largest insurers for any companies working in HRA’s around the globe are AIG, ACE, CNA and Chubb.  If you’re working for an American or British company they’re required by law to carry DBA as a part of being awarded that contract.

Let’s say you get injured god forbid, and for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into all the minutia and nuances involved with everything, however, your injury is reported immediately to a supervisor, then there’s a three-day waiting period before compensation begins in order to determine if the injury is serious enough to prevent you from returning to work.  If it is serious enough to prevent your return to work you’ll begin Long Term Disability rehabilitation.

Your weekly compensation is known as Average Weekly Wage (AWW) and is determined by your wages, the more you make the more your weekly compensation will be.  There is a cap though and this chart explains it in great detail.  Currently that bi-weekly compensation is $2,872.00.  When I was injured and going through my process it was $2,401.00 tax-free.

These benefits will be paid until you’re capable of returning to work in your same capacity or in a similar job (keep this in mind going forward).  You will not receive any increases for cost of living or inflation.

During this time you will be seen by doctors to treat whatever your injury is in an effort to get you to a medical and legal term known as Maximum Medical Improvement or (MMI).  From here, if you still cannot work in a like or similar job capacity then you may be entitled to permanent and total (PTD) disability benefits.

Ok, now that we know what DBA is, what happens once you get injured and the basics of it, let’s talk reality and what you should expect and do.

Firstly, the moment you can, retain legal counsel.  Your company is no longer your friend and you offer nothing of value to them anymore, you are now a legal and financial liability that’s going to impact their bottom line.  Expect to be marginalized and ostracized, your teammates and fellow “operators” aren’t going to bite the hand that feeds them and may even try to extract information for later litigation should it get that far.  It happened with me.

You are essentially on your own with your attorney and team of doctors helping you medically, keep in mind though, the insurance company will have their “own” team of doctors who will counter everything your doctors say and recommend.  There are DBA attorneys out there; they’re mainly located around coastal areas due to DBA being a part of the Long Shore & Harbor Workers Compensation Act via the Department of Labor.  It is a very small niche area of the law so the pool is very small, vet, vet and re-vet your attorney it could be the difference in hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to you.

Who you hire as your attorney will affect you tremendously going forward.  Google and interview attorneys and talk to other injured contractors if possible.  There are several blogs that talk about a variety of contracting issues and the good and bad attorney’s out there.  They’re hosted and run by wives and former contractors, the stories are horrific but provide a realistic, unfiltered view into your now reality.

I personally went through 3 attorneys during my ordeal with CNA.  My first attorney ran a churn and burn operation out of Houston.  During my first deposition he didn’t even show up for the deposition, but instead “attended” it via speakerphone.  I would not recommend Pitts & Mills, but the choice is yours.

 Picture of my Former attorney Gary Pitts sitting with a plethora of files in his churn and burn op courtesy of Houstonpress.com 


Picture of my Former attorney Gary Pitts sitting with a plethora of files courtesy of Houstonpress.com

In 5 years as my attorney, he never once flew out to meet me and finally one late Friday afternoon dropped me as his client after CNA threatened me with criminal acts, for not reporting side income, another dirty trick you can expect among hundreds of others.  Meanwhile, the insurance company used 3 different powerhouse law firms during my almost 7 year ordeal with them.

Here are the little dirty secrets no one will tell you:

  • You will be paid bi-weekly via hard check (it will get lost in the mail and will be paid late, sometimes weeks later) they do this to make your life difficult.
  • Your employer and anyone you “knew” at the company are no longer your friends, cut all contact immediately and forever with them
  • There are very, very few good DBA attorneys. They’re going to make a lot of money off your claim and are part of the problem.
  • The players in the cycle are three-fold. The attorneys, the insurance company and you.  You will finish last always (more on this later)
  • At some point the insurance company will just stop sending your weekly checks, 100% guaranteed. They will do this to break you financially and to force you to accept any low-ball offer they going to present.  Save up your money, I went without pay for 2 years even after a judge ordered them to pay.  They didn’t pay almost $120,000 back pay owed, the DBA process just has no teeth to make them do so and they know this.
  • You will be followed by private investigators; anything and everything you post online or communicate electronically will be watched and subpoenaed, BE CAREFUL!
  • Be prepared for the worst emotional roller coaster that will take its toll on you and your family, late checks affecting your quality of life, physical and mental anguish and your credit will be completely destroyed. Be prepared to lose everything, you will! (An awesome operator on my contract lost his wife and children and was living in his parents’ basement for over 3 years)
  • You can fire your counsel anytime, however, it will make your case less and less likely to be picked up by another lawyer, so pick your initial counsel wisely. (Remember the pool of DBA attorney’s is small)
  • Once you reach MMI, things start to move quickly (relatively), you’ll be put on the calendar to go to trial before the judge. The current backlog is about 3 years, and the insurance companies will more than likely not want to roll the dice and go to trial before an Administrative Law judge (ALJ), a settlement will be forthcoming.  You do not need to accept any settlement offer.

Daunting right, you bet!  Remember earlier when I mentioned the three players and how you’ll finish last?  I’d proffer this, in this process, who above is suffering the most?  Certainly not your attorney, they make a lot of money on each case.  They bill the Department of Labor for their hours, an average DBA attorney is billing the government at about $500+ an hour, it’s a golden egg laying goose that will pay 100% of whatever figure they present.  My attorney made $250,000 off my case alone.  Is it the insurance companies who your former employer uses?  Read below.

The insurance companies make money off your injury and therein lays the biggest scam in the entire DBA process.  Here’s how that works.  Read this report about the millions the insurance companies made on contractors during the war.  According to the report, “The Department of Labor told the committee that the DBA insurers delay or deny payments on almost all claims submitted by injured contractor employees. The insurers lose 95 percent of the disputed claims that are brought before administrative judges.”  Now you see why they’ll almost always settle, but not before they make your life hell.

Picture of banana in tailpipe of PI trailing me courtesy of Alex Popovic

Picture of banana in tailpipe of PI trailing me courtesy of Alex Popovic

Furthermore, Representative Waxman said “What makes the situation even worse is the people this program is supposed to benefit —the injured employees working for contractors – have to fight the insurance companies to get their benefits. Delays and denials in paying claims are the rule.”

A house panel investigating the insurance companies released a report that says that between 2002 and 2007, the four largest private insurers have made underwriting gains of 39 percent, or almost $585 million in profits, on about $1.5 billion in premiums.  They’ve made even more since then through this current fiscal year.

The insurance companies get reimbursed in full what they paid out plus make a 10% “administrative” fee scaled to what they paid you.  So do they lose money, or sleep?  The only thing they care about is what’s the least amount of money they can pay you?  In my particular case, from date of injury (November 4, 2008) until settlement in May 2015 my case took me through 3 attorney’s, two depositions, two years of no weekly checks and more doctors visits than I can remember, 4 days in ICU, and huge amounts of unpaid doctors bills on my credit.

In the end CNA paid out a mid six-figure settlement… wah right?  Not so fast, amortize that over the 7 years of my case and it’s far less than I made yearly working prior to my injury.  After paying back doctors fees that the insurance company wouldn’t pay that number was almost completely whittled away.  But what was the true cost and who profited the most, it most certainly wasn’t me and will not be you when dealing with DBA, insurance companies and attorneys.

You can follow Alex Popovic on Twitter or Instagram or at his blog AlexPopovic.com

  1. Medical crest courtesy of AmericanContractorsInIraq.com
  2. Picture of my Former attorney Gary Pitts sitting with a plethora of files in his churn and burn op courtesy of Houstonpress.com
  3. Pic of my team and I in Iraq courtesy of Alex Popovic
  4. Picture of banana in tailpipe of PI trailing me courtesy of Alex Popovic

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About The Author

Alex served almost 10 years as a Force Reconnaissance Marine and Scout/Sniper. He got out right before 9-11 and was recalled afterwards for OEF in Afghanistan and the Middle East and also the start of OIF. He recently completed his MBA and is working on attending ASU law school focusing on Intellectual Property law and helping veterans with their VA claims. He has been helping veterans the last several years with his real estate company, Semper Find My Home, for all their real estate needs and giving back his commission to them.

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