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Mother of slain contractor works to memorialize her son

Mother of a civilian security contractor who was killed during a U.S. Marine assault on the city of Fallujah, Iraq, is working to keep alive the memory of her son and other contractors.

Jerko "Jerry" Zovko, 32, was killed along with three other Blackwater USA contractors in a March 31, 2004, ambush in the Anbar province city, at the time a key al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold. The images of their burned and mutilated bodies - two of which were hung on a bridge - helped cast the spotlight on Fallujah and touched off a Marine assault on the city.

"On my Jerry's headstone there's no 'contractor'," said Donna Zovko of her son, an Army veteran.

"How will Americans treat or remember my son as a contractor that was killed?" she asked. "It's their choice, but he was there to protect our freedom and to help the Iraqis. He was not there for the money."

Zovko has waged a high-profile campaign for tighter oversight of military contractors, appearing in a documentary film, "Iraq for Sale: the War Profiteers," and testifying before a congressional committee Feb. 7.

More than 3,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003. More than 900 civilian employees of U.S. government contractors have also been killed.

Zovko rejects the suggestion that contractors in Iraq - where some can earn $500 per day or more providing security - are only motivated by big paychecks.

"I prefer to think of (Jerry) the way he told me," Zovko said. "That he was needed there and the skills that he learned in the military were needed and he went."

While the military takes care of its own, Zovko said, "In private contracting no one is responsible. They put it under the carpet and go on. It's not talked about. It's not answered to."

She understands the honors accorded military victims, but hopes people remember the contributions made by those hired by the Pentagon to free soldiers and Marines for combat duty.

Zovko said she especially feels for civilian contractors who lacked a military background. Her son was buried with military honors at the Ohio Western Reserve National Center near Akron.

"My heart breaks for them because if it was 9/11 that moved those young men to go and become contractors and to go there with such a pure heart and a good will and lose their lives, their families cannot count on those companies that contracted their son," she said.

She blames the security companies for thinking more about profits than the safety of their employees.

Blackwater has argued that it abided by its contractual obligations.

"The four men lost in Fallujah weigh heavily on the hearts of everyone at Blackwater and our sympathies remain with the families," the company told The Associated Press in an e-mail on Friday.

Blackwater does not release the names of those killed and memorializes its dead in private. At its headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, the company engraves a stone in its memorial rock garden for each contractor killed while serving.

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