Along with congressional hearings on allegations of recklessness against Blackwater USA security forces in Iraq, questions are also being raised about the way military contractors deal with traumatic stress while overseas and upon returning home.
The House began hearings Tuesday on the military contractor Blackwater following reports about the company's employees in Iraq who were linked to the killings of 11 Iraqi civilians in September and the murder last year of a vice president's bodyguard by a drunken employee.
Critics of Blackwater say the security firm's mistakes in Iraq while protecting U.S. nationals are evidence that the company cannot continue to operate in a shadowy world of lax regulations and little official oversight. But despite the public criticism of Blackwater, its main mission has been an overwhelming success. Not a single American official under Blackwater's protection has been killed, U.S. authorities maintain.
Before a Congressional panel Tuesday, Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince defended his employees' tactics and insisted his company was providing a vital role in Iraq. He said contractors risked their lives everyday to keep U.S. diplomatic personel safe.
"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," said Prince, a former Navy SEAL."We're the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis."
In light of the high-profile incidents, possible explanations for the company's actions are emerging, including psychological harm such as post-traumatic stress that led to erratic behavior by some contractors.
"I have never heard of a company offering psychological counseling," a military contractor who works for another company said on the condition of anonymity because of his firm's involvement with the Blackwater investigation.
"Blackwater might have a house shrink, but I'd be surprised if they do. Anyone who has spent more than a few months in Iraq is bound to have mental health issues," he said. "You put a bunch of jittery guys into a situation where everyone wants to bomb or kill Americans and that's a recipe for a really bad situation."
Blackwater declined to comment on the psychological services it provides employees.
Chris Taylor, a former Blackwater vice president now studying at Harvard University's Kennedy School, said the State Department -- with which Blackwater has an exclusive security contract to protect diplomats -- requires the company to screen all its personnel for mental health problems before deployment.
He said employees in the field are regularly reviewed by their peers and leaders and the company had recently hired a former Marine chaplain to provide counseling services. He also said Blackwater employees' insurance covers post-traumatic stress treatments once they return home.
Taylor would not comment on specific Blackwater incidents. He did say, however, that in "combat environments, mental stress effects people in a wide variety of ways. Blackwater has a good safety net for dealing with PTSD type disorders."