Monday, June 29, 2009



If you've managed to plow through things as they possibly should be, and taken a glimpse of things as they were, let's finish the job, shall we? Again, sorry for the length, but I think this is important.

Kirk went missing on October 9th, 2003. I've said that so many times in so many ways its acquired a strange life of its own. For a very long time it was defiance, and denial as I tried to shield Kirk and the children from what was happening; eventually there was a battered sort of resignation while I tried to find a way to tell the story without... well... disturbing anyone. But that's where it starts.

Kirk was the breadwinner of the family. He used to laugh and say that he would win the bread if I would win the gold. It was a private joke we had although I used to feel a bit guilty that I played around with things, taking private contracts as they appealed to me so I could stay home with the kids and do what sounded fun or caught my interest. I could have done a lot more; I had the skills to do it, but there were soccer games to go to and lunches to pack and Kirk was, at least in California, earning a pretty good living.

When he joined Ultra Services he asked for a salary that would equal what he brought home from his civilian job. We knew that if things went well there could be bonuses far above that, but for his base salary he didn't ask for anything more than what he was already making. It was important somehow, to both of us, maybe because of the brush that all contractors seem to be painted with.

When he went missing his immediate boss, his friend C, did his best and managed to get his salary paid to me for two months. That two months helped support my family for the next two years (the only work I found -six months after Kirk disappeared- was part time).

It was in March when my sister, a lawyer, told me about a strange little law she had discovered. It sounded a long shot to me - Kirk had not yet signed a contract with the company although he had clearly acted on their behalf (with military contracts signed and paid); worse, the company had not carried the required insurance since apparently they hadn't known of the requirement, but, about six month after Kirk vanished, I filed a claim with the labor department, and tried not to hope that something would come of it.

It's hard to describe how debilitating it is: money. I hate it. I was raised to hate it really, which makes it even more difficult. There aren't words, aren't even cliches which I've explored extensively in the last several years, to talk about what happened. But worse, in the 3 a.m.'s, the horrible weakest moments when I didn't even have logic and reason to help cover up the fear, the bleak knowledge of raising three children alone. So there was a dreadful tug of war between wanting to believe that the claim would come through and a depressive belief that nothing positive would ever happen again. And, ridiculously, I had the ingrained idea that even hoping for a settlement was somehow putting a price tag on Kirk's life.

Of course I never even had the chance to get to that point. It was months and months before I got the letter in the mail, the one telling me that as Kirk was missing, and as the investigation was on-going, the Labor Department could sadly not rule one way or the other. By that time it wasn't even a disappointment.

Months and months and months later there was a meeting with the CID and a 'final' answer (sorry, the quotation marks aren't intended to be ironic, honestly). Within a week or so I sent a copy of the certificate I was given: Presumption of Death of A Citizen Abroad to the Labor Department. At least, I thought, I'd know one way or another.

And nothing happened.

Really nothing, not a letter, not an acknowledgment that the claim now had changed: nothing.

And I thought that was it. Because I was raised to think that it was wrong to press things when it came to money.

But Susie Dow wrote an article. And someone who makes it his business to see that the government does what its own laws says it should do took an interest, and... well, it seemed that things were going to actually progress.

Hands up: who can guess what happens next?

Sorry, no prize for the winner.

Friday, June 26, 2009


So, to adjust the chart a bit for the real world:

In fact I'm not entirely sure there was a call for bids either. I have a feeling the company sort of showed up, talked to a few people and, being Johnny on the Spot, got the deal.

But I definitely know that no one asked about whether the company was carrying insurance. I know this because Kirk's boss, when I told him about the Act, had never heard of the requirement - had no idea at all that legally Ultra Services HAD to carry insurance and, legally, the military could not deal with them if they did not do so.

Now, I'm willing to grant that it was still a fairly chaotic situation in Iraq (although there had been contractors there for quite some time). But Ultra Services was the sister company of another one which had been contracting for a couple of years in Afghanistan - years. And yet no one, apparently, knew anything about this little niggling problem.

How is that possible? How can a company - and, I have to believe, multiple other small companies - deal for an extended period of time with the military and not once, apparently, be told about basic, fundamental rules for being a military contractor? I honestly, truly want to know. Did the military guys who were given the power to sign these contracts simply not know about it? Was there no training involved? No oversight - in not one military conflict but two? Or did the company really know about it but somehow manage to avoid the requirement?

Anyway, that's the first, egregious place of failure. The second is in what happened after Kirk went missing. However, to keep things short(ish), we'll save that for tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Right, sorry about the lag there. So to recap, here's a little visual of the ideal claim process:

Next up?

The real world (okay, the world as I know it).

Thursday, June 11, 2009



So I've been trying to work out how to write this and not be totally and terminally boring. I was going to do a nice flow chart complete with little colored boxes and arrows and everything. But for now we'll just talk through it.

So, here, highly simplified, is what is supposed to happen:

War (okay, war isn't supposed to happen, but that's where it all starts so...)

Which produces needs - things that the military either can't do or really shouldn't do as it is outside their core purpose.

Which leads some bright button to call for contract bids.

At which point the responsible person ensures that the bidding contractors are competent to do the job and, here's the clever bit, have insurance. Because, per that tricksy little Defense Base Act, IT'S THE LAW.

Once the contracting company has been thoroughly vetted the contract is given and individuals hired and, here's another clever bit (in an ideal world) THEY ARE GIVEN INFORMATION ABOUT THE INSURANCE AND THEIR RIGHTS.

So. Unfortunately this is where disaster happens and our poor contractor is injured, killed or, just possibly, missing.

As soon as this is reported either the contractor or the family is contacted (as is the insurance company) and some kind soul is assigned to walk them through the unfortunately complicated process of filing a claim.

Like telling them what form to use, who to talk to, how to provide supporting documents - all that stuff.

They might even, you know, ideally, keep track of the progress of the claim as it swims through the murky waters of government agencies - even protecting it from the voracious insurance sharks.

If I were really dreaming I'd even like to think there would be a timeline involved so that the claim would be acted on in less than, say, six years.

You know,


Friday, June 05, 2009


I didn't want to write this post.

Or the ones that will come after really.

For a few months I really thought I would write something quite different, something pretty simple and short and that would be the end of it.

But it's not, and I can't.

And I'm afraid the next few posts are going to be Not Much Fun. It's not going to be horrible or tragic or deeply awful or anything, just complicated and quite possibly dull as all get out. But it's the sort of thing it's hard to be flippant about and, quite honestly, I'm more than a little fed up.

So, you've had fair warning, and if you want to skip the next several posts then by all means feel free.

I am going to be breaking it up though, that's why the several upcoming posts, because to be quite honest I can't imagine anyone wanting to digest the whole thing in one go.

So, some of you might have seen an article here or there lately about AIG (in particular), a company that provides insurance for contractors in Iraq. There was a 20/20 special on it as well - all about how AIG was probably being a little to sharp in their business practices and how they were making it unbelievably difficult for contractors and their families to actually be paid. If you haven't seen the articles and you want to know a bit more you can check here for a collection of links put together by Susie Dow.

There's a mention in the articles about this little act that was passed back in 1941, back when the world was torn to pieces and, apparently, someone realized that eventually they were going to need folks who could put it back together again. It's called the Defense Base Act; an obscure piece of legislation, but American law all the same.

It's all pretty simple really, just a bit of writing that says it would be a really good idea to insure civilians before putting them to work in a war zone. And a note pointing out that as the country is hiring these folks, the country which has passed this particular act, the country should then take responsibility for seeing that things are done properly when someone is injured or killed - or when they go missing.

I mean really, how hard can that be?