By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
He was unconscious and moaning loudly when the medic arrived to find him on the floor of the civilian workers' tent -- officially B-hut No. 13 -- in Afghanistan on November 30 last year. In response to "painful stimulus," all Celester Hall did was open one eye, his left.
The 53-year-old truck driver from East Texas couldn't answer questions, and no one had seen him fall. There were dried urine stains on his shorts, but no one knew how long he'd been there.
Hall had gone into the civilian clinic at Bagram Air Force Base three days before, complaining of aching all over and sweating when it was cold. KBR medic Charles Dusha had given him ibuprofen, extra-strength Tylenol and a decongestant, and had assigned him to quarters, allowing him to stay in his cot for a few days. Obviously, things had gotten much worse in a hurry. This was beyond what the medic could handle. They scooped Hall up and took him over to the U.S. Army's 325th Combat Surgical Hospital.
Sedated, paralyzed and intubated, Hall was placed on a ventilator and taken for a CT scan that didn't show any gross bleeding or any mass or lesion. They thought he'd had a stroke.
On December 1, Hall was airlifted to Germany, his destination the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Hall had signed on with the Kellogg, Brown & Root/Halliburton subsidiary Service Employees International, Inc. to make his fortune. But somewhere along the way, in the dusty cab of a supply truck or in his cramped living quarters, his luck had run out.
At the Landstuhl army post, Hall was diagnosed with strep pneumonia meningitis, aspiration pneumonia and nerve dysfunction. The inner layers of his brain were inflamed, rendering him totally helpless. Back in Bryan, his wife, Bema Johnson-Hall, heard of his critical condition through other employees. She called KBR, got a hurry-up passport and readied herself to join him.
On December 2, Hall was given a lumbar puncture. Doctors stopped sedating him, tried to clear away the cloud of drugs. His mental status did not improve.
They brought in a neurologist on December 3. Hall wasn't doing any better. He didn't open his eyes to any stimulation.
The next day an anxious Bema was told not to worry about going over to meet her husband; they were sending him home. On December 5 he was transported to Methodist Hospital in Houston via Air Med International. From there, he went to Kindred Hospital in Houston, an acute-care facility, and then to the St. Joseph Regional Rehabilitation Center in Bryan. Along the way, he'd had a feeding tube put in, as well as a tracheotomy to help him breathe.
On February 17 he went home to his house in Bryan.
Celester Hall, a man who had regularly played basketball and baseball and walked for exercise, a man who drove long distances on his truck routes to help support his wife and their blended family of three teenage children, was now deaf. His eyes weren't opening. He'd lost his balance. He'd had a stroke.
He had to be catheterized and eventually would graduate to wearing adult diapers. His hearing loss appears to be as permanent as it is profound. A cochlear implant did nothing to improve the condition -- it just made him more susceptible to infections, according to his wife.
Before he went overseas, Hall was handed some KBR literature, indicating that he and other contract workers had a special role to play in the Afghanistan theater.
"KBR employees are not contractors, we are Force Multipliers We are as close to being soldiers as we can get without saluting and carrying a gun," the KBR/Halliburton literature reads.
All in all, it was a sorry end to a high-risk gamble.
And it got worse. In the spring, when Bema was standing in a drugstore waiting on one of Celester's prescriptions, she was told her Cigna group health insurance had been canceled. It was canceled because Celester's employment had been terminated.
She applied for workers' comp through Service Employees International, Inc. KBR contracts with the insurance company AIG WorldSource to handle international claims. One of AIG WorldSource's Dallas-based adjusters, Joseph Johnson, turned her down, writing to her in a letter that Celester wasn't eligible for coverage. She started looking for a lawyer.
By late May, she and her husband were in a Houston courtroom with attorney Lewis Fleishman arguing that SEII should be covering the medical bills, which by then totaled more than $100,000.
And, as she testified before a Department of Labor administrative law judge, Bema Johnson-Hall had discovered that December 1 -- the day her husband was hanging on to his life during his nine-hour flight to Germany -- was officially his last day of employment.
His employer had terminated him, retroactively, to that date.
Celester Hall ended up before a federal administrative law judge because, as a civilian worker supporting the troops, he is covered under the Defense Base Act, an extension of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, a special form of workers' comp.
The Defense Base Act provides "compensation for disability or death to persons employed at military, air and naval bases outside the United States."