When American military contractors are injured in the line of duty, they can count on the Defense Base Act. But when Russian mercenaries are injured in places like Syria, they have no such assurances.
Olga Markelova lost her ex-husband and the father of her baby in Syria. Dmitri Markelova had left the Russian military to join the Wagner Group. Under that company’s banner, Markelova fouchg in Ukraine and Syria. But Russian officials denied that he was a mercenary. Instead, they insisted that he worked for a large energy company. “I know that he was fighting and he was in this private military company,” she said. “I was there in Krasnodar, I saw the base in Molkino, I saw him in a military uniform. He never hid from us that he was fighting abroad,” she added.
Wagner generally compensates families of fallen mercenaries, but the compensation is often more like hush money. Company officials often give the families cash at the funeral and tell them not to speak to the media about the affair. But that compensation is strictly voluntary. Wagner is not legally obligated to pay anything. Wagner stopped speaking to Olga when she petitioned Russian President Vladimir Putin for assistance.
Mercenaries v. Private Military Contractors
Many people, especially in the media, use these two terms interchangeably. Indeed, there are some significant similarities between mercenaries and contractors. However, there are some significant differences, as well.
Private military contractors and mercenaries are both non-government, paramilitary groups. They both primarily serve in combat or combat support roles. They also fill other functions, such as training foreign soldiers and maintaining military equipment for foreign armies.
Now, for the differences. Mercenaries fight only for money. The political situation means nothing. The Hessians (Germans) who fought for the British Crown during the American Revolution fit that mold. Many of these soldiers did not speak English, could not find Boston on a map, and cared nothing about the dispute between Great Britain and its colony. They only cared about money.
Modern American military contractors fight primarily for money, but it is not exclusively about the money. Those Hessians probably would have crossed over to the other side if the Patriots offered them more money. But DynCorp and other contractors would never fight for ISIS, even if the money was substantially better.
On a similar note, mercenaries serve in all military capacities, That includes defensive and offensive operations. Contractors, however, only serve in defensive capacities. In fact, it is illegal for American contractors to go on the offensive. More on that below.
Are Contractors Legal in the United States?
Mercenaries are illegal in the United States, which is predominantly why the American government has never signed international accords on mercenary use. Since there are no mercenaries in America, there is no point in submitting to international oversight. Russia has not signed these accords either, but that is because Moscow wants to operate without restrictions in places like Syria and the Central African Republic.
Contractors have a short history in the United States. Mercenaries, on the other hand, go back even further than the Hessians in America. There is evidence that Greek mercenaries fought in ancient Persia, even though the Greeks and Persians were bitter enemies.
For many years, the Anti-Pinkerton Act forbade government use of any paramilitary group. Then, in an obscure footnote in an obscure case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals questioned whether this prohibition applied to private military contractors. A few years later in 1980, the General Accounting Office declared that it would allow the government to hire military contractors and send them overseas.
Today, private military contractors serve in many places. Some are violent war zones and others are relatively quiet. But no matter where they serve overseas, injured contractors may rely on the Defense Base Act. Some service areas include:
- Afghanistan: For many years in this ongoing conflict, private military contractors have borne the brunt of the fighting. The Trump Administration is still mulling a proposal to completely privatize the Afghanistan war.
- Syria: Contractors provide an important military role in the ongoing civil war, especially now that the shadowy Wagner Group is in the country as well. When the fighting ends, contactors will participate in rebuilding efforts.
- Japan: Contractors in Japan basically deter regional aggressors, like China and, more importantly, North Korea. American servicemembers are very unpopular in Japan, but contractors are only marginally unpopular.
- Diego Garcia: This remote island in the vast Indian Ocean, which was supposedly a black ops interrogation site after 9/11, can hardly be considered a “war zone.” Yet the Defense Base Act covers the longshoremen and other contractors who serve there.
Under the DBA, a “war zone” is any country which has any permanent American military presence. That presence could be a military base or a military attache in an embassy. Furthermore, the contractors may or may not have a military mission. Peace Corps volunteers are eligible for DBA benefits.
Injury Compensation Available
Medical bills are usually the largest component of DBA benefits. The underlying issue could be a trauma injury, such as a fall or gunshot wound, or an occupational disease, such as burn pit illness or repetitive stress disorder.
Generally, the DBA covers any reasonable medical expenses which the victim incurs during the course of treatment. Such bills include:
- Emergency care,
- Follow-up visits,
- Medical devices,
- Transportation expenses,
- Prescription drugs, and
- Physical or occupational therapy.
Physical therapy helps injury or illness victims recover lost physical functions. Occupational therapy helps permanently injured victims learn new vocational skills.
Most injured contractors may choose their own doctors and change physicians at any time during the course of treatment.
Contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. for more information about other available DBA benefits.