When a civilian or military contractor is killed or wounded by hostile action experienced in the line of duty, then the contractor may be awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom–commonly known as the Defense of Freedom Medal or DFM. Initially, the medal was created for certain victims of the September 11th attack. Since that time, the scope of the medal has been extended to additional employees, including defense contractors.
The problem, in my opinion, is that the medal is not awarded frequently enough. I base my opinion on the number of War Hazards Compensation Act claims opened and processed by the Department of Labor over the last decade in comparison to the few Defense of Freedom medals awarded during the same period of time.
What are the Medal’s Requirements?
Department of Defense Instruction Number 1400.25 identifies the requirements for the Defense of Freedom Medal. Essentially, the Defense of Freedom Medal is “aligned as closely as practicable to that of the Purple Heart for Service members.” The medal is awarded to “the DoD civilian workforce killed or wounded during the performance of their official duties . . . .”
The United States Army’s website provides further explanation. The medal is awarded when an “employee” is injured or killed due to hostile action, including but not limited to, “the use of conventional or nuclear weapons, chemical or biological agents, explosives, or missiles.”
Although the medal is called an entitlement for employees, the U.S. Army’s website has a separate section for “Army Contractor Nominations:”
The Secretary of Defense will consider nominations of contractor employees for this medal. Nominations for contractor employees will consist of [DA Form 1256], completed and submitted to the Executive Secretary, Army Incentive Awards Board, along with a report from a medical treatment facility or professional and a signed release to permit discussion of medical information by those who review the award nomination.
There is a distinction between “employees” and contractor employees. Employees are entitled to the award; contractors can be considered for the medal, if nominated. The nomination must state:
- The name of the contractor employee;
- The contractor employee’s position title;
- The name of the contractor employee’s company, along with a point of contact;
- The title of the component office for which the contractor employee worked;
- The date and location of the event which caused the death or injury;
- A description of the circumstances of the contractor employee’s death or injury (e.g., the event that caused the death or injury and how it occurred);
- For injuries only: a statement regarding the contractor employee’s medical treatment.
- A military certification statement.
Conditions That Qualify for A Purple Heart Award:
The Defense of Freedom Medal is closely aligned with the requirements for a Purple Heart. According to the U.S. Army Human Resource Command’s website, a Purple Heart will be awarded if a Service member is “killed or wounded in action by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict.” Illustrative examples of injuries sufficient to trigger a Service member’s entitlement to the Purple Heart include:
- Injury caused by enemy bullet, shrapnel, or other projectile created by enemy action;
- Injury caused by enemy placed mine or trap;
- Injury caused by enemy released chemical, biological, or nuclear agent;
- Injury caused by vehicle or aircraft accident resulting from enemy fire;
- Concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy generated explosions.
Notably, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and battle fatigue are listed as injuries which “clearly do not justify award of the Purple Heart.”
As an aside, I disagree with the exclusion of PTSD and battle fatigue. And I’m not alone. Even a cursory Internet search reveals many are in favor of awarding the Purple Heart for PTSD. For example, consider:
- Why Are We Denying Purple Hearts to Veterans With PTSD? by Gene Beresin.
- Purple Hearts for PTSD: Report Calls for Change in Military Culture; Outlines Mental Health Needs of Veterans by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- How the Purple Heart Can Help Heal Veterans with PTSD by Benjamin Tupper.
In all fairness to opposing viewpoints, I recognize that this is a charged issue, with some people (veterans included) completely disagreeing with my position. One of their arguments is that the inclusion of PTSD as an eligible injury for Purple Heart recognition will cheapen an award which has historically focused on physical injuries.
But there is no denying that PTSD is real, serious, and life-threatening. Just consider the startling statistic that suicide claims the lives of 22 veterans each day–more than double the general population.
Further, it is interesting that concussion injuries (presumably traumatic brain injury) qualify a Service member for the Purple Heart but PTSD does not. (I previously addressed the link between TBI and PTSD in my article, The Defense Base Act, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and PTSD.)
All of this is mentioned to make a point: as long as the Purple Heart is denied to veterans with PTSD, so too will the Defense of Freedom Medal be denied to civilian contractors with PTSD. I don’t think the Defense of Freedom Medal should be denied to contractors with PTSD, just like I don’t think the Purple Heart should be denied to veterans with PTSD.
What Are War-Risk Hazards Under the War Hazards Compensation Act?
Back to the issue at hand–the rare award of the Defense of Freedom Medal. Keep in mind the U.S. Army’s explanation of the hostile actions that could trigger the Medal’s award: “the use of conventional or nuclear weapons, chemical or biological agents, explosives, or missiles.”
Now consider the War Hazards Compensation Act. The WHCA is a statutory scheme whereby an insurance company can ask for reimbursement of the Defense Base Act benefits it paid to the injured contractor. Reimbursement is allowed only if the contractor’s injury was caused by a “war-risk hazard.”
The term “war-risk hazard” is specifically defined by both the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations. A “war-risk hazard” is “any hazard arising . . . from:”
- The discharge of any missile (including liquids and gas) or the use of any weapon, explosive, or other noxious thing by a hostile force or person or in combating an attack or an imagined attack by a hostile force or person;
- Action of a hostile force or person, including rebellion or insurrection against the United States or any of its allies;
- The discharge or explosion of munitions intended for use in connection with a war or armed conflict with a hostile force or person . . . .
WHCA reimbursement claims increased exponentially over the past decade, in large part because it was determined that terrorist and insurgent attacks qualified as “war-risk hazards.” If a contractor was injured in an event precipitated by any of the actions, discharges, explosions, or use of weapons described in the “war-risk hazard” definition, then the WHCA applied.
Frankly, I don’t see much difference between the “hostile action” contemplated for the Defense of Freedom Medal and the “war-risk hazard” definition for War Hazards Compensation Act reimbursement. For the Defense of Freedom Medal, “hostile action” includes weapons, explosives, and missiles. For WHCA coverage, a “war-risk hazard” includes “the use of any weapon, explosive, or other noxious thing by a hostile force or person.” As far as I can tell, the substance of these two definitions–“hostile action” and “war-risk hazard”–are identical.
And here is the kicker: to get WHCA reimbursement, a carrier has to prove the existence of a “war-risk hazard.” It has to prove that an IED detonate, or a rocket exploded, or a gunshot was fired, etc. To do so, the carrier collects information from a wide array of sources, including the U.S. military–sometimes–and then submits all of this information to a government agency. Then, that agency–the Division of Federal Employees Compensation–reviews the carrier’s evidence and states whether it agrees that a “war-risk hazard” did, in fact, take place. If the agency agrees, the carrier is entitled to reimbursement.
A Potential Solution:
I have a potential solution that could justify the award of more Defense of Freedom Medals. Based on the Department of Labor’s most recent figures (graphed above), roughly 3,200 WHCA applications were submitted in the last decade. Why not use the War Hazards Compensation Act rolls as proof positive that particular contractors were exposed to events and suffered injuries that qualify for the medal? The information that a carrier collects and submits in order to secure WHCA reimbursement is the same information that would be submitted in a nomination form for the Defense of Freedom Medal–almost to a T. It follows that the same information–which has already been collected–could be sent with a Defense of Freedom Medal nomination.
Further, if one government agency can make a determination that a contractor was injured by a “war-risk hazard,” then why can’t another agency make a speedy determination that a contractor was injured by a “hostile action”? Determining whether a particular injury is a “war-risk hazard” falls exclusively within the purview of the Division of Federal Employees Compensation. But facts are facts–and every injury has only one set of facts. As such, if the facts show that someone was injured by an IED, rocket, mortar, enemy gunshot, etc., then one would think that DFEC’s determination could help–or at least fast track–the Defense of Freedom Medal’s required “hostile action” determination.
Although I make the solution sound simple, I understand that there are difficulties with my proposal. For example:
- The WHCA applies to some non-hostile events, too. An injury occurring during the operation of an aircraft in a zone of hostilities is a “war-risk hazard,” no matter whether the injury was caused by a hostile force or person. I have seen the aircraft provision used to secure WHCA reimbursement of the Defense Base Act benefits paid to pilots who developed deep vein thrombosis; aircraft mechanics who were injured during a test run; and security contractors who injured their back when a blade strike caused a helicopter to drop ten feet, violently jarring the occupants. Hostile activity was not required in any of these events. The only requirements were: (1) an injury and (2) an aircraft operating in a zone of hostilities. And like I heard one security contractor succinctly testify: all of Afghanistan is a zone of hostility.
- Some of the 3,200 WHCA claims were for PTSD only. As I mentioned earlier: (1) the events that trigger eligibility for the Defense of Freedom Medal are closely aligned with the events that trigger eligibility for the Purple Heart; and (2) as long as the Purple Heart does not apply to PTSD, it likely will not apply to the Defense of Freedom Medal.
- Some of the 3,200 WHCA claims were for foreign nationals who do not want the award. The contractors who work on overseas installations include local and third country nationals. For some of these employees, it could be hazardous to award the Defense of Freedom Medal. Insurgents and terrorists target these individuals because of their employment, and U.S. commendations could put them in harm’s way.
For those employees who are eligible for the Defense of Freedom Medal, and who are willing to accept the medal, the medal should be awarded more often. Defense Base Act employers and carriers already use the same information that would be used to nominate the contractor for the Defense of Freedom Medal when the carrier applies for War Hazards Compensation Act reimbursement. Why not use that same information to nominate a deserving contractor for a commendation that recognizes their sacrifices?
Infograph from the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs.