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Manchin questions military officials on contractors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., questioned Army Secretary John McHugh and General Ray Odierno about the Army's increasing reliance on private military contractors.

Manchin wants military officials to cut contractors instead of reducing the number of regular troops, especially as debates about budget deficits continue.

The United States has 90,000 service members deployed in Afghanistan, Manchin said Thursday. But they are outnumbered by more than 113,000 private military contractors.

Many overseas contractors earn up to three times the amount that service members earn, Manchin said, for performing the same tasks.

Army officials are talking about cutting the number of their troops by more than 80,000 over the next five years.

During his tour of West Virginia in January, Manchin said he thought the large sums of money going to private military contractors are "sucking" the military dry.

"Especially in West Virginia, we have a hard time understanding why we would be cutting back the military men and women in uniform and not cutting back the contractors," Manchin said. "I can't figure that out."

During several hearings held about the Department of Defense budget over the past month, Manchin has repeatedly questioned military leaders about the growing reliance on expensive security and service contractors overseas.

Manchin argued American men and women in uniform are capable of performing the same jobs.

According to the Defense Department's latest quarterly report released in January, the U.S. government was paying 175,045 private contractors inside the U.S. Central Command, including 101,789 contractors in Afghanistan and 52,637 in Iraq at the end of 2011. Of those private contractors, 44,928 were U.S. citizens

After Thursday's hearing, Odierno agreed to work with Manchin on his bipartisan Veterans Jobs Caucus created to expand hiring service members in the Senate and on Main Street.

Odierno and Manchin have also discussed creating a one-stop job search source for veterans returning home from service and looking for jobs in the private sector.

Some analysts believe some private contractors make even more compared to American soldiers.

In their 2010 book "The Three Trillion War," economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes wrote that private military contractors, who come from the United States, typically make about $445,000 a year. U.S. Army sergeants made between $51,100 and $69,350 a year, Stiglitz and Bilmes wrote.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also believes the billions of federal dollars spent in Afghanistan would be better spent addressing financial problems at home.

Like Manchin, Rockefeller has argued foreign spending should be focused on "terrorist hotspots" throughout the world, not on "rebuilding"  countries like Afghanistan.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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