Gambling on Iraq

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

Someone tosses a grenade under the back of his trailer, and the explosion rocks his entire truck. Half the tanker is gone when Heering takes a second hit that blows out his tires and windows. There's the chatter of gunfire. More explosions. He jams down on the gas pedal, but the truck responds sluggishly, dragging the entrails of his tanker trailer. With flames licking the front of the cab, Heering flings open the door and jerks himself out. But the seat belt is tangled around his arm and the truck is still moving at about ten miles an hour. He lands awkwardly on his shoulder and pops back up.

There's smoke everywhere, so he can't tell exactly which way to run, but he sure as shit can't stand there in the road and risk getting run over. A group of ten or 15 assailants streams out of a nearby building, running right at him. When he turns to flee, it's either a rock or a stick or the butt of a gun that cracks him in the back of the head.

He falls. He blacks out for a moment.

The scars of shrapnel from an explosion near Heering
Michael Serazio
The scars of shrapnel from an explosion near Heering
Heering personalized his rig with a message to his 
Daniel Kramer
Heering personalized his rig with a message to his family.

When Heering pushes up off his belly, his vision is blurred and he feels a boot in his back and a gun pointed at his head. He hears them screaming at him in Arabic, and then his senses dull. There's a sharp sting in his shoulder and a loud ringing in his ears, and as the whole surreal tableau dims, there -- there is his little boy.

"In my head, it just got completely silent and I remember hearing my little boy, Tyler, and I heard him say, 'Daddy, come home.' " Pause. "He said, 'Come home now.' And I jumped up and started swinging."

It is a warm fall morning, six months later and more than 7,000 miles away, and about 100 people have lined up to become the next Stephen Heering -- which is to say, a KBR employee bound for the Middle East. The company facility sprawls out anonymously across several city blocks east of downtown, and a Friday job fair is taking place in a giant industrial warehouse with steel rafters. Grizzly-bear laborers and polo-shirt white-collar types elbow in at packed tables, filling out application worksheets. A short man with tasseled loafers, a cell phone snapped onto his belt and a KBR badge takes the microphone: "I'd like to welcome you here this morning to our overseas open house. Everybody is aware this is a job for overseas, right?"

No one gets up to leave.

The man explains that KBR's contract provides support and logistics for U.S. military installations around the world. If a recruiter offers any of them a job -- and nearly half are called up at the end -- they must pass a background check for felony convictions, a psychological profile, a drug screening and a health checkup, which includes a stress test for those over 40.

That would probably include a majority of the folks here -- a group that, like KBR's workforce already in Iraq, is mostly male.

The KBR speaker talks about a packing list that they'll receive if hired: "It does state you are not," his voice snaps drill instructor, "authorized to wear any military clothing or camouflage-pattern clothing. You are not authorized to carry a weapon. KBR is not hiring you to be a combatant."

That doesn't mean, though, that workers won't see action. The handout spells this out: "Weather is EXTREME…During the summer time it can be as hot as 150 degrees…Expect to be dirty a majority of the time. Sand and dust storms are VERY common and you will get dust and sand in your eyes, mouth and nose…There is no escaping from the sand and dust!…Sometimes you might take a shower by the same water bottle that you drank from…The camps or bases can be potentially dangerous (example: random gun fire, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds and land mines)."

The KBR speaker adds in a monotone voice, "There's other hazards at those sites also. Like mice, snakes, scorpions, ticks, fleas, spiders -- big ones." He widens his hands to the circumference of a large frying pan. "Use common sense, don't mess with 'em."

Sure, common sense. As sales pitches go, it's neither a hard nor a soft sell. It's more unsell -- a deadpan depiction of Temple of Doom conditions in faraway lands. All of which can be yours for a very tempting price.

Halliburton, the parent company of KBR, has more than 35,000 employees and subcontractors in countries such as Kuwait, Afghanistan and, most prominent, Iraq. Although the company says it has more than 100,000 résumés on file, it gave no response to questions about whether recruiting has become more difficult as the security situation has grown more tenuous.

Other American companies have large contracts in Iraq, but they pale in comparison to Halliburton's. Fluor Corporation, based in California, has contracts worth at least $3 billion for 250 employees doing engineering and construction projects in Iraq. Washington Group International, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, also has contracts totaling around $3 billion, and they report having 100 employees directing 2,000 Iraqis in power- and hospital-reconstruction jobs. Neither company says it's had any worker deaths. The California-based Parsons Corporation has contracts worth an estimated $5.3 billion; it would not release any information on either the number of workers in Iraq or how many casualties it has suffered.

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