Cover: Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

What We Know About the Well-Being and Experiences of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Environments

Published May 21, 2014

by Molly Dunigan, Carrie M. Farmer, Rachel M. Burns, Alison Hawks, Claude Messan Setodji

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Out of the Shadows

What we know about the well-being and experiences of private contractors working in conflict environments

For the past decade, private contractors have been deployed extensively in conflict zones throughout the world, supporting U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations, and private businesses. These contractors experience many of the same traumas of war faced by military forces—combat stressors known to have negative physical and mental health implications for armed forces personnel. Unlike military service members, however, many contractors don't have access to mental health resources before, during, and after deployment. So how are they coping with the after-effects of working in a war zone? RAND's survey of more than 650 contractors gives us a glimpse into how this "shadow force" is faring.

Exact numbers of private contractors employed internationally are unknown, but we do know that private contractors employed by the Department of Defense at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan outnumbered U.S. troops deployed to the theater.

Number of contractors and service members employed by the Department of Defense

Contractors Servicemembers
Iraq, 2008 155,826 152,275
Afghanistan, 2010 94,413 91,600

Data are from the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.

Contractors reporting combat exposure compared with veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom

Contractors Veterans
I or members of my team encountered land or water mines and/or booby traps. 36% 46%
I or members of my team were attacked by terrorists or civilians. 47% 53%
I or members of my team received hostile incoming fire from small arms, artillery, rockets, mortars, or bombs. 73% 74%
I personally witnessed someone from my team or an ally unit being seriously wounded or killed. 36% 35%
I was in a vehicle (e.g., truck, tank, armored personnel carrier, helicopter, plane, or boat) that was under fire. 39% 46%
My team suffered casualties. 34% 30%

Contractors with probable mental health or substance use problems

Probable PTSD
Probable depression
Alcohol misuse
High-risk drinking

Only 30 percent of those with probable PTSD or depression report having received mental health treatment.

Contractors with probable PTSD or depression, by length of most recent deployment

PTSD Depression
2 months or less 17% 12%
3 to 6 months 18% 15%
7 months or more 44% 28%

Contractors with probable PTSD or depression, by citizenship

PTSD Depression
United States 32% (Compared with up to 20% of service members) 23%
United Kingdom 13% 9%
Other countries 17% 14%

Contractors reporting physical health conditions, by specialty

Land security
Base support
Maritime security

Reported physical health conditions include orthopedic issues, respiratory issues, back pain, hearing problems, skin issues, pain, digestive problems, vision problems, cardiac/circulatory issues, infections/sickness, and fatigue/weakness.

For more information, see Molly Dunigan, Carrie M. Farmer, Rachel M. Burns, Alison Hawks, and Claude Messan Setodji, Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Environments, RAND Corporation, RR-420-RC (available at, 2013. This research brief describes work conducted as part of our RAND-Initiated Research program and was funded in part by the generosity of RAND's donors and by fees earned on client-funded research.

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