The US Occupation of Iraq: Casualties Not Counted

An anxious unrest, a fierce craving desire for gain has taken possession of the commercial world, and in instances no longer rare the most precious and permanent goods of human life have been madly sacrificed in the interests of momentary enrichment. – Felix Adler

In all past wars the United States has been involved in, including the two World Wars, Vietnam and the first Gulf War, the military was self reliant and took care of its basic support functions like cooking, cleaning and other services.

That changed when the Cheney administration took control of the government in 2000. War has now been privatized, and the shining examples of this privatization are Afghanistan and Iraq. As you read this there are approximately 100,000-125,000 American civilian contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their jobs range from providing security to desk work to interrogating prisoners to driving convoy trucks to clearing unexploded ordnance. A year back, in November 2005, the US Department of Labor listed 428 civilian contractors dead and 3,963 wounded in Iraq – none of which are ever counted in the official casualty counts.

Employing civilian contractors supposedly saves money in the long run and, more importantly, frees trained soldiers for battle. The notion of low expenditure stemmed from the assumption that civilian contractors were hired for temporary/emergency engagements. This assumption no longer holds worth in the face of the current long-term (permanent) guerrilla war (read-Iraq and Afghanistan) without clear front-lines.

Given the astronomical profits posted by these defense contractors, in addition to widespread fraud and waste, it is difficult to believe that any administration would want to adhere to this model, unless of course certain members of that administration were financially profiting from it.

Those vague front lines stretch all the way back home, for it was at home that Tim Eysselinck became one of the thousands of uncounted and unaccounted-for civilian casualties in Cheney’s so-called war on terror.

Eysselinck worked for RONCO Consulting Corporation since 2000, and his last assignment in Iraq from August 2003 up to February 2004 was as the head of a de-mining team that was assigned to clear cluster bombs, land mines and other unexploded ordnance. A combination of this work, a perceived life-threatening airplane accident, and witnessing military personnel kill innocent civilians proved lethal for him. By the time he returned home to Namibia he was steeped in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two weeks before his death, he told a friend in Namibia, “There was a lot of death and murder going on [in Iraq] that was just not right, and the only thing they could do was to follow orders.” He also told her, “I should go back.”

For nine years, Eysselinck had served as a captain in the US Army and was very proud to be a member of the Armed Forces. He had been commissioned as a Lieutenant of Infantry from the ROTC at the University of Florida on completion of his BA. He was a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic course, Airborne School, and was Ranger qualified. He had served as a Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer and Battalion Adjutant in a Light Infantry Division based in Hawaii. After four years he was promoted as Captain. Before leaving he gave up Active Duty. In 1994 he returned to serve with Special Operations Command Europe and was deployed to Bosnia, West Africa, and finally Namibia in 1998. Throughout his military career, Captain Eysselinck received excellent Officer Evaluation Reports.

LTC Nichols, Director of SOCEUR, wrote of Captain Eysselinck: “Absolutely outstanding. Top 5% of all the officers I have every known. Top pick for line Battalion Command. Performs exceptionally under mental stress.”

Eysselinck’s rating comments for his 1998 posting in Namibia as military liaison officer included the following: “Captain Eysselinck has once again demonstrated why he is on our very short list of Reserve Officers who can be relied upon to complete real world missions.”

He left the army in 2000 because his wife, Birgitt, had made that a condition of their marriage. But when he returned home from his time in Iraq, Tim was a changed man.

His mother, Janet Burroway, is a writer and academic who lives in Florida. In an earlier interview with journalist Rick Kelly, she described her son on his return from Iraq thus: “What he experienced had a shattering effect on him. There was absolutely no hint of the depression to come. But the anger was palpable. It was shattering to him, to come to feel that the war was wrong. He spoke of corruption, lies, greed and a brutish stupidity. At the time, I was so happy to hear that he had seen something of what I felt about the war that I didn’t stop to think about how deeply wounding that would be to him. He said that he was disgusted with the Bush regime, and that Bremer had screwed it all up with the Iraqis. He was always, almost glibly, willing to die for his country, and even saw himself as going heroically into battle. But that’s not what happened to him. He said at one point to a friend in Namibia that he was ashamed to be an American. I’ll say that any day of the week, but for Tim to say it represents such a huge turnaround.”

His wife Birgitt told the same journalist that during his Christmas break in December 2004, her husband had discussed the atrocity he was witnessing in Iraq. She feels this must surely have contributed to his PTSD: “He also said that another time they were driving behind, or with, a military convoy that just started shooting into the civilian houses. And he said, ‘Then they try to deny it when civilians are killed.’ And he said the military does not have to pay compensation, and he said it with sort of a smirk, like he was saying: ‘typical.’ They [contractors] were shot on at the site. There were improvised explosive devices placed alongside the roads that they were using, the sites where they were working. One of his colleagues was crippled by a blast – these are all things now that they are trying to pretend didn’t happen. They should at least write a certification that if somebody comes out of a war zone they [contractors] need to be debriefed. You can’t just let them back to an unsuspecting family and society. Back in Namibia, we weren’t prepared for this. We don’t even know what post-traumatic stress disorder is. If I had a clue about what it was, I would have sent him to a doctor immediately, because he had the signs.”

And like Tim’s mother, his wife too had noticed that it was a changed man who returned from Iraq. “There were changes. The biggest change was his sleeplessness,” she told Rick Kelly, “And he had this uncharacteristic hyper-vigilance – locking the doors, making sure both safety gates are closed. Tim was driving recklessly, physically trembling at times and repeatedly blinking his eyes. He was irritable, anxious and displayed uncharacteristic outbursts of anger on his last day. At the end, he was watching the news quite obsessively and writing to his men almost every second day, which I only discovered afterwards. He was asking how they are. When the Lebanon Hotel blew up, he writes, “Are you OK?” You know, this type of thing: “I watched the news with trepidation, I hope you take care. Worrying about you guys, hope you made it through the recent bombings.” He obviously had soldiers’ guilt, or survivors’ guilt, whatever you call it.

In a state of shock and disillusionment about a war he had previously supported, 40-year-old Eysselinck committed suicide at his home in Windhoek, Namibia, shortly after he had returned from Iraq on a three-month leave of absence in agreement with RONCO because he felt “over-stressed” after two years in Ethiopia and then Iraq.

It turns out that while working in Iraq, a major stressor for Eysselinck was the persistent attempts by RONCO headquarters to disarm him and his team in Iraq with a view to avoid potential liability. This had become an ongoing struggle, even after other contractors who had been unarmed were killed, ambushed and severely beaten. Eysselinck had threatened to quit if they disarmed him.

Five minutes before Tim killed himself, while holding up the US military-issued Iraq’s Most Wanted playing cards, he told his wife, “You get me professional help.” Birgitt had said in her interview with Kelly: “He knew something was wrong. Three weeks before, he woke up and said to me, “Something is wrong with me, I’m feeling down.” But what was I to do with that statement? Feeling down? I also blame myself in a way, because I don’t have any knowledge of depression, I know nothing about the subject. I mean this was a clear and obvious symptom. And then he said it again a week later – that he couldn’t sleep and was waking up three times a night.” Around noon on the day of his death, in the presence of the housekeeper, Tim said he was depressed. Later the housekeeper recounted she had seen him marching through the house like a soldier.

With Tim’s death began a nightmarish journey and legal odyssey for Birgitt. RONCO refuses to acknowledge that Tim’s work caused his PTSD and refuses to pay her any compensation for Tim’s death. She initiated legal action to qualify for support from the CNA International insurance carrier under the US Defense Base Act.

RONCO responded to her efforts to first establish Tim as a war casualty and then to get justice by not acknowledging any of it. Not only did the company turn a cold shoulder, they even went out of their way to discredit him, adding to her anguish.

It is important to note that among RONCO’s full-time employed staff of 90 US and 300 host-country personnel, the company has many ex-government officials, including a former USAID deputy assistant administrator, mission directors and retired senior military personnel. Their clients include USAID, the US Department of Defense and Blackwater. The company has been awarded contracts in Iraq worth well over $10 million.

Birgitt recently told me that three days after Tim’s death, she had received a call from Stephen Edelmann, the president of RONCO. “He expressed his condolences and wanted to know what happened and concluded that “It [Tim’s death] was nobody’s fault … it’s a defective gene.” Reportedly Edelmann had also said that RONCO was too small a company to have a pension scheme.”

Birgitt told me that RONCO sent a wreath to the funeral. Her disillusionment showed in her words: “This was the sum total of their assistance to a man who worked from them since November 2000 as a Deputy Task Leader in Namibia, then as Chief of Party in Ethiopia, and someone who finally put his life on the line to establish their projects in Iraq.”

Roughly three months later, Tim’s mother wrote RONCO a letter, with a psychiatrist’s report attached, requesting compensation from the company. RONCO realized it would not be able to wriggle out of paying $3,300 that they owed Tim for unused vacation time. To Tim’s mother’s claim they replied that Tim had been a valued member of their team and referred the family to a lawyer with whom to file a DBA claim.

It is also clear that RONCO has no debriefing infrastructure for their employees who return from Iraq. As Birgitt said, “The point is that they should have debriefed their people. They can’t send people into a war and then not take care of them properly. I sent a happy, healthy man to Iraq. We had no problems, no marital problems, no family problems, no money problems – no problems. So evidently, this [Tim’s PTSD-induced suicide] was caused by the war and what happened there.”

Five months before his death, on 16 November 2003, Tim wrote the following email to his stepmother:

“Talked to Ben tonight and he said that you were worried about me. Don’t, I have a deal with Birgitt that if things got bad here I would be brave and be a coward and run away. I would never consider this if I was in the military, but I’m smart enough to know that I don’t have to be here and I have way, way too much to live for to take anything but a well-calculated risk with my life. I have a son and daughter to marry off and both of them need me more than this place. So again, I’ll be brave and be a coward, if I feel that my security is really at risk. In the mean time, I’ve trained 100+ Iraqis that can maybe make a difference and save a few lives. You can’t really argue with that as an accomplishment.”

But his perception evidently changed after RONCO went operational in November 2003. That is when Eysselinck and his team of international trainers accompanied Iraqis to multiple task sites daily; going through checkpoints around Baghdad to do Battle Area Clearance of live munitions. On 10 January 2004, Tim wrote in his diary: “Everything crazy now. I hope I can make it home safe.” The diary entry included detailed doodles of bombs, rifles, aircraft, gas masks and rocket-propelled grenades.

Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing we have lost, wandering in strange lands? – Arna Bontemps

When the claims case came up, instead of taking responsibility for negligently causing the irreplaceable loss of a beloved husband, father and son, and apologizing for the severe emotional damage inflicted upon his family and friends, RONCO introduced into evidence a scurrilous fabricated attack on the character of its deceased employee whom they had themselves entrusted with their most difficult and profitable project.

Among other things, the deceased Eysselinck was accused of being rude, uncaring and indifferent; a military Ranger “wannabe” who “was only a tab wearer but never saw combat.” This depraved “defense strategy” compelled his widow to obtain statements from over 16 witnesses, including a statement from the Namibian Defense Force, in order to rebut the allegations made about Tim by a RONCO employee.

RONCO then hired an 82-year-old retired psychiatrist, who when interrogated admitted to not having read current research on PTSD, to falsely claim that the onset of PTSD symptoms occurs immediately after the traumatic event and that suicide is an outcome of depression rather than PTSD.

After their efforts to discredit Eysselinck backfired, RONCO set out to denigrate his work and the very nature of the war in Iraq. Two RONCO workers made the incredible claim that conditions had been far from dangerous in Baghdad between August 2003 and February 2004. They also claimed that Tim had not been exposed to threats. They made these claims, along with testifying that neither of them had seen Tim during that time. There was and continues to be overwhelming evidence from work reports in the country that are contrary to these fictitious and bogus claims.

It appears that RONCO is more concerned with evading potential liability and sustaining their profit margin than with the safety and well-being of their employees.

Tim was never diagnosed with PTSD before he died so there is no hard evidence that he had PTSD. The reason there exists no irrefutable evidence of his having PTSD is RONCO’s criminal negligence in failing to provide psychological screening and counseling to a staff member who spent seven months in a war zone.

According to the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, the suicide rate in the US Army in 2005 was the highest since 1993. Almost 1,700 service members returning from the war in 2005 said that they harbored thoughts of hurting themselves or felt that they would be better off dead. Over 3,700 said they had concerns that they might “hurt or lose control” while with someone else.

In July 2005, the US Army Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, announced that, according to a survey of troops returning from the Iraq war, 30% developed mental health problems three to four months after coming home. This is in addition to the 3-5% diagnosed with a significant mental health issue immediately after they leave the theater, and 13% experiencing significant mental health problems in the combat zone itself.

For decades, it has been an undisputed medical fact that the onset of PTSD is not immediate after the traumatic stressor. This is why the US Army has a policy to debrief troops on their return from the war zone and of checking back in with them six months later in order to check for signs of PTSD.

Tim’s family never thought they would have to prove in court the obvious fact that it was dangerous to work in Baghdad during the occupation and the truth that their deceased loved one had faced threats sometimes on a daily basis, not to mention that his job entailed handling unexploded ordnance. Tim worked on the task sites daily and was exposed to the very real threat of being killed while handling unexploded bombs and mines over and above the daily security hazards that all contractors in Iraq face.

Nevertheless, the judge in their case did not agree with the family and the professional opinion of their psychiatrist, despite the fact that the judge had found Eysselinck to have been “a person of high moral character much loved by family, friends and co-workers,” “patriotic, a perfectionist, polite and fiercely honorable,” and “a devoted husband and father who was respected by fellow workers and trainees.”

A human person is infinitely precious and must be unconditionally protected. – Hans Kung

And one is left to wonder how many more Tim Eysselincks there are in Iraq? How many more of them have returned home not knowing about PTSD or how to treat it? How many of their families are currently unnecessarily at risk from the often volatile behavior caused by PTSD or are left in the bereft position that Birgitt finds herself in?

Civilian contractors in Iraq, though they are paid handsomely for their time there, are easily lost in a legal no-man’s-land if tragedy strikes. Their families are then left in the lurch as well. With an estimated 100,000-125,000 American contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can safely assume there are thousands of stories similar to Tim’s and still counting. To each story is attached an individual and a family.

And the occupation grinds on with no end in sight…