Gambling on Iraq

Hundreds of Houstonians have signed up for wartime jobs with KBR. The hefty paychecks come with a scary, bloody price.

On the day before all hell breaks loose, the worst day of the American occupation in Iraq thus far, Stephen Heering shouldn't even be making a run.

It's Thursday, April 8, 2004, and in the groggy haze of predawn, the clock reads "0500." The 34-year-old veteran truck driver has been in the country for almost four months now. Some much-needed R&R shimmers along the desert horizon. He's scheduled to fly back from Kuwait to his home north of Houston on April 22.

Normally, Heering says, Kellogg Brown & Root doesn't send guys out on convoy runs in the two weeks leading up to vacation. You never know what might happen out there, and if you got stuck at another base, you could miss your flight. Last night, Heering thought he was done. Thought that he could breathe easy. He pulled his stuff out of the truck and turned in the keys.

The aftershocks of truck driving in Iraq still haunt 
Stephen Heering.
Daniel Kramer
The aftershocks of truck driving in Iraq still haunt Stephen Heering.
Convoys typically travel in packs of 30.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Heering
Convoys typically travel in packs of 30.

Then his KBR supervisor told him they were shorthanded and asked him to make one last drive up to Camp Anaconda, 70 klicks north of Baghdad, or about a six-hour drive on a very, very good day. If he pitched in, he could catch a flight down to Kuwait and have a little extra time on the beach. Pick up a few souvenirs for the wife and kids.

So that's why he finds himself back in the cab of his truck, buckled in, a Kevlar helmet on his head and a 40-pound steel-plate vest slung over his shoulders. He's got pictures of Crissy and their two boys next to the speedometer; his yellow Arabic taxicab sign (a "good luck charm") is sitting on the dashboard.

"In the mornings, I'd wake up, man, and I'd pray. I got sooo close to God when I went over to Iraq," he says. "You'd pray, 'Man, please let me just make one more mission, let me just make it back to the base.' "

For a month in the spring, God had seemed pretty attentive. Heering's former convoy, earlier christened the BBC, or Boom Boom Crew, for the frequency they took heat, had enjoyed a month of relatively smooth sailing.

"[We] started joking around, said, 'Man, but when we get it, we're gonna get it good,' " says Heering. "And, sure enough, we did."

The convoy commander knows that Heering shouldn't even be going out that day, so he gives him a good spot, second in line. Heering says that 90 percent of the time, the first five trucks will get through without any problems. Moreover, the first group of fuel tankers (typically 30 in all) carries JP-8 jet fuel; next in line is diesel; and bringing up the rear is "mo-gas," which is so flammable, one driver says transporting it is "like riding a big stick of dynamite."

The odds are stacked in Stephen Heering's favor -- as far as that goes hauling around fuel in a war zone -- but the morning starts out ominously. An explosive is spotted right outside their Camp Cedar 2 home base. Heering's never heard of one being so close to Cedar. He radios the commander: "Man, we're off to a bad start."

After a six-hour delay, they finally take off, heading north from near Al-Nasiriyah to Camp Scania, 180 klicks south of Baghdad. They refuel there and swap out military police, but the main supply route to Baghdad International Airport is closed because of explosives in the road. Heering's group must stay the night in Scania.

"We called it the Gates of Hell, 'cause once you passed [Scania], that's where you were at," he says of the dangerous stretch leading into Baghdad. He sleeps in his truck and has breakfast the next morning while the road is swept clean of mines. Another driver notices that, strangely, no Iraqis show up to the base that morning -- Friday, April 9 -- to sell goods to foreigners at the "Haji mart." At 0930, they push off for Baghdad.

When another explosive brings the convoy to a halt not far from the airport, the bullets start flying. A soldier likens the sound to golf balls pinging off metal drums, but it's small-arms fire, nothing unusual, and they escape without serious injury or damage. After checking tires, tankers and windshields, and punching in a report with coordinates, Heering says, the military escorts decide to proceed on to Anaconda. Getting into Baghdad is one headache; getting out is another.

Truck drivers speak in grim parlance about this road out of the capital. Officially, it's known as Highway 1. One driver calls it "the widowmaker"; another, "blood alley." When Stephen Heering finds his convoy on a stretch referred to as "the meat market" -- because of the slaughtered animals usually hanging along a roadside bazaar -- he tenses up. This road typically is choked with traffic -- "like drivin' in downtown Houston at rush hour," jokes Heering -- but today the area has cleared out. Something's not right.

Minutes later, outside a small town, the message comes across the wire: Seek shelter immediately -- convoys being ambushed. At this point, though, they can't turn back. It's quicker to get to Camp Anaconda.

Heering thinks he's the first one to get hit.

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