In 1984, U.S. defense contractor KBR hired Wade Dill for pest control and hazardous waste disposal duty in Iraq. Speaking to ProPublica, Dill’s wife Barb admitted that the ex-Marine was motivated by money. “He said this was our opportunity. He could start a college fund for our daughter, pay off the mortgage and have a nice retirement. He told me at his age, 41, he didn’t know if he had enough years left in him to give us what he wanted.” When Wade returned from his second stint in Iraq, the wheels came off the bus. “He abruptly quit his job and began acting erratically,” Barb Dill said. “He ripped the wiring out of appliances, smashed mirrors and poured lighter fluid on their furniture . . . After a few weeks, Wade took a room at a local motel. On July 15, he asked Barb to come see him. Their conversation spiraled into a confrontation. Frightened and angry, Barb sped off in her car. The next day, the Shasta County coroner’s office called to tell her that Wade’s body had been found in the room.” Dill had shot himself in the head with his 9mm handgun.
The ProPublica story focuses on Mrs. Dill’s fight for financial compensation. The AIG (yes that AIG) insurance policy under which Wade Dill worked specifically excludes suicide-related payments—in contrast to U.S. military policy for its soldiers (under The Defense Base Act). AIG is fighting Mrs. Dill’s claim, relying on the contract’s clear caveats, and a forensic report that concludes her husband had a pre-existing mental health problem.
AIG attorneys also have said that Wade Dill’s actions were related to marital and family problems. A psychiatrist hired by AIG testified at a hearing in San Francisco in January that he had performed a “psychological autopsy” on Wade Dill based on interviews with his family and court documents.
The psychiatrist, Andrew D. Whyman, said his evaluation led him to conclude that Dill suffered from depression and that his suicide was unrelated to the violence he witnessed in Iraq.
“Take out the Iraq experience, (the suicide) would have happened,” Whyman testified. “He had a choice. He could have chosen not to do that.”
It strikes me that the entire case is a rear-guard action. With hindsight, it’s easy to suggest ways the KBR could have helped prevent this tragedy: better initial personnel screening, a pro-active “safety net” for employees’ mental health, standard post-employment PTSD detection and treatment, a helpline and more. AIG should implement these changes as soon as possible.
But it’s hard to understand how AIG’s obligations to Dill and his peers post facto exceed those stipulated in a contract signed by both parties in good faith. Common sense suggests that any civilian entering a war zone should have a pretty good idea of the physical and mental dangers therein. Which is especially true for an ex-Marine.
While Mrs. Dill and the families of other U.S. defense contractors have my gratitude and sympathy for sharing the burden of non-governmental service in The War on Terror, they understand the relationship between risk and reward. Whether home or abroad, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
They should now note the fact that America places contract law at the center of its citizen’s rights and responsibilities. AIG upheld its end of the bargain. Anyone who signs-up with KBR or a U.S defense contractor has the right to walk away and seek alternative employment. In this case, clearly, Wade Dill should have exercised that option.