During World War II, several Hollywood directors left Tinseltown to create movies about the war that would inform and entertain the folks at home. The conflict changed all of them, and their wounds summarize the difficulties many returning military contractors face.
When John Ford shipped off to Midway in early 1942, he believed that it would be a quiet, out-of-the-way place to collect some background material. When he arrived, he learned that a Japanese invasion fleet was en route to the island. During an air raid, a bomb exploded very close to him (at about the 9:05 mark of this video). Mr. Ford was badly injured, but he recovered fully.
Before the war, George Stevens was one of the most successful comedic directors in Hollywood. But in 1945, he filmed Allied troops as they liberated Dachau. The exposure to combat stress changed him, and after the war, he never directed another comedy.
William Wyler spent most of his time documenting the air war in Europe. He accompanied several B-17s over Germany, despite the fact that, as a Jew, he would probably have been sent to a concentration camp if he was shot down and captured. Later, during a stint in Italy, Mr. Wyler went up in a B-25 to collect some additional footage. The engine noise ruined his hearing, and although he somewhat recovered, he remained mostly deaf for the rest of his life.
Despite their injuries and experiences, all three men had successful postwar careers, directing films like Ben Hur (George Stevens), The Searchers (John Ford), and The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler).
Contractors and Trauma Injuries
Mr. Ford’s injury reveals at least two things about the nature of war wounds. First, even the most serious wounds are often curable, given extensive and timely medical care. Second, even in 1942, there is no such thing as a “rear area,” as everyone in a combat zone is at risk for serious injury.
Many parts of the world are equally dangerous for combatants and non-combatants. For example, both groups are subject to attacks from militants, whether they are escorting a convoy through hazardous territory or engaged in a government-sponsored rebuilding effort. Some common injuries in these kinds of attacks include:
- Gunshot and shrapnel wounds,
- Broken bones from falls or knockdowns, and
- Serious head injuries.
In addition to aggressive medical care, most of these injuries require long-term physical therapy to recover lost function, and a wide range of medical devices. Depending on the type of injury, emergency care alone can easily eclipse $20,000, to say nothing of followup medical care and physical rehabilitation.
Contractors and PTSD
At the time Mr. Stevens returned Stateside, nearly all medical professionals still assumed that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was something akin to “shell shock” that a few days of rest would probably cure.
However, researchers now understand that exposure to combat stress, and the liberation of a Nazi death camp certainly qualifies as such, erodes the prefrontal cortex and strengthens the amygdala; the PFC is the region of the brain that controls logic and reason, while the amygdala governs emotional responses. This imbalance results in symptoms like:
- Nightmares, and
- Heightened awareness.
Because of the new research, the Canadian Army recently reclassified PTSD as OSI (operational stress injury), a physical injury that merits the Canadian Sacrifice Medal, which is equivalent to a Purple Heart.
Contractors and Long-Term Illness
In World War II, Mr. Wyler lost his hearing because of exposure to engine noise in Italy. Today, during the Global War on Terror, many contractors lost their ability to hear normally because of exposure to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Veterans Administration has consistently denied the link between burn pits and respiratory disease, choosing instead to blame illness on the desert climate or almost anything else.
However, an alarming number of returning contractors suffer from severe respiratory diseases that do not normally occur in young and otherwise healthy people. These individuals must deal with substantial medical bills, and also face the possibility that they may never return to life as they once knew it.
Compensation Under the Defense Base Act
All three types of injuries described above (physical trauma, PTSD, and respiratory distress) are probably compensable under the DBA. To obtain benefits, victims must establish the following elements:
- War Hazard Area: Many people would not consider Midway Island a “war zone” before the Japanese invasion. But under any normal use of the phrase, and because of the way the DBA defines it, essentially any place in the world that has an American military base is a war hazard area.
- Physical Injury: In this context, “physical” is not synonymous with “obvious” because traumatic brain injuries are as real as any gunshot wound.
- Nexus: Injured victims must show that there was a relationship between their injury and their service overseas; the injury does not have to occur while the contractors were “on the clock.”
The DBA provides cash benefits including both lost wages and medical bills. Most victims receive two-thirds of their average weekly wage, and most medical bills, from the first E.R. visit to the last physical therapy session, are paid in full.
To find out more about the DBA process, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel.