Who Cares?

Celester Hall went to Afghanistan to help the troops and make his fortune. He came back deaf, in diapers and looking for benefits.

To be covered, all a person has to do is show that while he was living or working overseas for a company in support of the troops, he encountered a disabling illness or injury. No one has to prove negligence, just that the illness or injury arose from "conditions of employment," Fleishman says.

If a permanent total disability is established, then under the Defense Base Act, the employer's insurance company is required to pay the person two-thirds of his average weekly salary for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, a lot of overseas civilian workers have no idea the act exists, says Houston attorney Gary Pitts, who handles several such cases. "The legal requirement is so obscure: a poster in their office," Pitts says. "I've never heard any of my clients say there was a poster in the Quonset huts or tents."

So far the best sound that Celester has gotten from 
his cochlear implant is a low static.
Daniel Kramer
So far the best sound that Celester has gotten from his cochlear implant is a low static.
Celester tries to read lips but usually relies on 
messages written to him on a wipe board.
Daniel Kramer
Celester tries to read lips but usually relies on messages written to him on a wipe board.

Companies do mention the Defense Base Act in their contracts, he says, and if employees ask the companies specifically about the act's provisions, they don't deny its existence.

In an e-mailed response, Halliburton spokeswoman Melissa Norcross said that "a KBR representative thoroughly explains the company's health care benefits for employees and their families. The company clearly explains that the Defense Base Act (DBA) will be provided to every employee. Employees also receive explanations regarding what the DBA is and how it works."

But according to Pitts, there's been some misinformation handed out at Halliburton job fair meetings. Client Carole McNair of Houston says she asked what would happen if her husband, Roy, died overseas. Would she be entitled to only the $25,000 life insurance policy KBR gives its employees? According to her, a KBR representative stood up and said: "We're working on it, but yes, that's all." (Roy McNair hurt his back in Iraq while working as a KBR truck driver, and a year and eight months later, the McNairs are still battling with Halliburton over his compensation.)

In reality, if a widow makes a claim during the year after her husband's death, she's entitled to one-half of his salary for the rest of her life, Pitts says. In response to a question from the Houston Press, KBR acknowledged that there might be additional payments due a widow in such a case.

A salary of $80,000 a year would mean $40,000 a year to a widow, Pitts says. If she lives 50 years beyond her husband's death, that would be $2 million. That would be $2 million that the insurer doesn't need to pay out. Lower payouts means better insurance rates for KBR, Pitts points out.

Not many attorneys like to do Defense Base Act work, according to Pitts. Most clients live in remote areas, making meetings difficult. The pay, set by the Department of Labor, is below normal billing levels, he says. Many of these cases drag out for months, although the Department of Labor has recently put them on the fast track. The number of adjusters in the Dallas office of AIG WorldSource increased from three to seven just recently, Pitts says.

Of course, the attorney and the family get nothing if they lose.


Celester Hall has an 11th-grade education. As court records show, he worked for a local Texas trucking firm in which he made $6,240 for 15 weeks of work (that works out to $21,632 a year). Afghanistan, with the expectation of $80,000 in annual pay, meant a better life.

He'd already worked for Halliburton in 2003 -- in Kuwait -- but returned when his wife had complications from gastric bypass surgery. He has relatives among the Afghanistan support workers, so he was ready to try it again.

He lived in a 20- by 35-foot Bravo hut with eight to ten people. Each man carved out about a seven- by nine-foot space for himself, constructing dividers out of sheets or carpets bought from the bazaar or the PX.

Bagram Air Force Base is surrounded by barbed wire and a minefield with an eight-foot chain-link fence with concertina wire on top. None of this is any protection against the dust and dryness that cause respiratory problems to last longer than normal -- the same conditions that wreaked so much havoc on the Soviet army when it battled Afghan fighters for ten years starting in 1979. According to medical accounts, some 43 percent of the Soviet military had acute pneumonia during the first year in Afghanistan.

Things hadn't improved much by 2004. In a long-distance deposition in Hall's case, interrupted by a sandstorm, medic Charles Dusha said he and a nurse were seeing 70 patients a day. He estimated that on base there were 10,000 to 15,000 military personnel and about 1,000 KBR employees and a dozen smaller contractors -- as well as 500 to 1,000 locals doing manual labor.

There is a meningitis vaccine that, according to one leading proponent, Dr. Daniel Musher of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, decreases the probability of a serious pneumococcal infection by 60 to 70 percent. But it is not routinely given out to civilians or by the U.S. Army. Civilian workers do receive immunizations against hepatitis A and B, polio and typhoid.

KBR's medical facility, at least at Bagram, appeared to be a bit Spartan both in number of medical personnel and space available. When Celester Hall was brought in, the medic did not perform a spinal tap. Dusha wasn't qualified to do so. The nurses and doctors at Bagram didn't do one either. According to Dr. Musher, an authority on streptococcus pneumonia and pneumococcal meningitis, a spinal tap should not be delayed.

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