The other heroes

Mark Corallo Contributor
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For the rest of his life, Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta will be on the receiving end of salutes from every member of the uniformed military regardless of rank.  Rendering a salute to a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient is one of the coolest military traditions in an organization known for traditions.  And being a great soldier, SSG Giunta will probably never get used to returning the salute of a superior officer.

SSG Giunta risked his life to save a brother in arms.  He faced the enemy at close range.  He stared death in the face and did not blink.  He is a hero.

I’m sure SSG Giunta will be the first to tell you that he knows an awful lot of heroes who have been defending freedom in this decade-old war on terrorism.  Too many have paid the ultimate price.  But our uniformed military are not the only heroes in this war.  Thousands of contractors have served in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Hundreds have been injured or killed.  Most of these unsung heroes were veterans of the United States armed forces who decided that they wanted to continue to serve.

So they signed up with Blackwater — now Xe Services (a company I used to represent) — or DynCorp or Triple Canopy or others.  They have protected U.S. diplomats, government staff, visiting dignitaries, politicians and even our military and intelligence installations.  Yet instead of thanks and gratitude, they have uniformly received scorn and derision from the national press corps and too many members of Congress trying to score political points.  They have been called mercenaries (a term that reveals the ignorance of too many of the aforementioned critics) despite the fact that they served the USA not a foreign power.

For instance, in a Senate oversight hearing on Afghanistan this past spring, Missouri Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill said: “You know, we’ve got two kinds of organizations that are performing the same functions. One responds to money, and the other responds to duty.”  She was drawing a distinction between contractors and the uniformed military.  I wonder if Ms. McCaskill would utter those insults in the presence of the family of Blackwater’s Ron Johnson, who was killed in January 2007 while responding to an attack by enemy insurgents on a diplomatic convoy in Baghdad.  Ron’s actions saved the lives of several American consulate officials.

Ron Johnson was a former Army Ranger who was no stranger to combat having fought in Grenada in 1983, receiving the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with V device for his actions under fire.

But to Senator McCaskill and too many of her colleagues, Ron and his brothers in arms ceased being honorable the day they joined a civilian contractor.

Or how about Blackwater’s J.D. Greer, who was providing security for a staff motorcade on its way to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance in May 2006.  J.D. lost his right arm from injuries sustained under attack on the route.  The people he was protecting arrived safely.  J.D. Greer is a veteran of the U.S. Army having started out as an enlisted soldier and worked his way up into the officer ranks.

But you haven’t heard about J.D. Greer’s heroism or the hundreds of stories like his.  You didn’t hear about the five Americans who died in January 2007 when their helicopter was shot down over Baghdad while they were coming to the aid of another ambushed convoy of American diplomats.  Casey Casavant, Steven Gernet, Ron Johnson, Art Laguna, and Shane Stanfield did what they were trained to do as military vets and Blackwater employees — they went toward the firefight with one unified thought — save the people on the ground so that their families would not suffer the loss of a father, mother, sister, brother, son or daughter.

The American people only get the bad news — the reports of the few rotten apples in the barrel that break the rules.  Those news stories are completely legitimate and should be told.  But there should be balance.  Unfortunately, the stories of quiet heroism by the contractors serving alongside our uniformed military just don’t fit the mainstream media’s and liberal politicians’ storyline about the contractors.

As an Army veteran, I’m in awe of the men and women who serve in uniform today.  They volunteer to face dangers and hardships that most Americans could not imagine in their darkest nightmares.  But I strongly believe that it is time we paid our respects to the men and women who volunteer to serve alongside our uniformed military, supporting America’s mission as civilian contractors.  They suffer many of the same dangers and hardships.  And like our soldiers, they have suffered their share of injured and killed in action.

The difference is that they receive no public thanks, no praise, no medals and no salutes.  Instead, they get called war profiteers, mercenaries and worse by pompous politicians and pundits — cowards who would not even contemplate serving in harm’s way.  Ironically, those contractors protect the pompous politicians when they travel to Iraq and Afghanistan on their fact-finding tours.  Perhaps, upon returning safely home from their next trip to Iraq or Afghanistan, a few of those politicians will think about the skill and dedication of the professionals who protected them, and offer some official thanks.

Mark Corallo is the owner of Corallo Media Strategies, Inc, an Alexandria, Virginia Public Relations firm.