Gambling on Iraq

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

With most of the work in Iraq, Halliburton and its KBR subsidiary have been in the headlines a lot lately. Questions, allegations and insinuations have persisted -- from street-level protests to presidential debates -- about fraud, corruption, waste and war profiteering. Some of the main concerns include the award of a no-bid contract for Iraqi oil reconstruction at the outset of the war, overbilling for gasoline and meals, and the ethics of the company's relationship to former CEO Dick Cheney. According to Halliburton, the logistics and support contract alone is worth at least $8.3 billion.

"It's a question of accountability to taxpayers that's at question with some of these issues," says Charlie Cray, director for the Washington-based Center for Corporate Policy. Commenting on the civilian truck drivers in Iraq, he adds, "That's where they're taking a lot of risks as well. That's where these people are potential cannon fodder."

To date, 54 Halliburton employees have been killed in Kuwait and Iraq, in addition to countless others who have suffered injuries. Between 500 and 700 from around the country are shipped through Houston to the Middle East every week. Here, they undergo training at an abandoned department store at the dead end of a listless mall north of Beltway 8. The scope of the human assembly line is staggering. So, too, is the number of sterile acronyms thrown at them: It's a world of IEDs, MREs, MSRs, MWRs and, on Thursdays, NBCs.

New KBR recruits practice nuclear, biological and 
chemical attack training.
Daniel Kramer
New KBR recruits practice nuclear, biological and chemical attack training.
Stephen Heering says he saw his son Tyler in his 
mind's eye in the midst of the attack.
Stephen Heering says he saw his son Tyler in his mind's eye in the midst of the attack.

That's when hordes of trainees line up in the department store to practice wriggling into yellow biohazard suits should they ever encounter an NBC -- a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. They duct-tape the suit flaps to each other's wrists and ankles, and an instructor sprays a substance into the mask vents to ensure protection from contamination. As with any large bureaucracy, there's also a lot of waiting for the wheels to turn, and many of the guys end up sitting around reading books or playing cards.

"I felt like a damn cow going through the slaughter, you know, just waiting in line," Stephen Heering says of the time leading up to his departure. "And that's what almost it is." Like most applicants, the reason he went to Iraq was simple.

"A lot of the people there were people just like me, making $30,000, have kids goin' to college, behind on bills, fixin' to lose houses," he says. "And this is a great way of making a ton of money and changin' their lives. And they know that and that's what they focus on."

Houstonian Sandra Howell, who, at 57, says she was the oldest woman she saw working in Iraq, had been laid off for five months before going over. She cried herself to sleep every night for the first month after she arrived. "Every day, I says, 'What am I doing here?!' And then I'd go, 'Cha-ching!' The money." She says that almost everyone else she met there had been unemployed.

Yearlong contracts like Howell's generally average upward of $80,000. Some nurture small, simple dreams with that sum. K.C. Hardcastle, another local still in Iraq, says that the proceeds from his contract will put him closer to one day opening a small hotel and dive shop in Mexico with his wife. Others are more strapped for cash.

One driver explains: "Toward the end of it there, we were getting guys that came over that only had a couple changes of clothes. And in talking with them, they were, like, one step away from livin' underneath a bridge." In that, the venture seems quintessentially American -- a kind of modern-day gold rush to the Wild West of the Middle East.

Some add that patriotism or a taste of adventure sends them into the fray. Mickey Moe Quintos, 46, who just signed on to become a driver, says he's doing it for the troops. He knows that, unlike civilian contractors, American soldiers can't just walk away from duty. "My family's pretty good," Quintos says of the decision. "But my neighbors, a few of them say, nah, I'm crazy."

Sara Neel, a 24-year-old KBR employee in Iraq whose husband is also there, says that her decision shocked the family.

"Emotionally, my family is absolutely torn. They're beside themselves," she says. "Some of them are really angry at me right now, and some of them just don't answer the phones. And some of them [cry] all the time.

"But I say, 'You know what? If I can't hang over there, if I can't handle it, don't worry, I'll come home.' And that is like this little bit of peace that they have. 'Okay, if she doesn't want to -- like the day she gets there, she doesn't want to, she'll come home.' "

As Hardcastle points out in an e-mail, "It is always easier to be the one going than the one staying behind."

Back at the job fair, a Q&A session is wrapping up. The KBR speaker offers a few candid thoughts for those who aren't unemployed or down on their luck.

"If you have a cushy job that pays great money and you're safe back here and you're warm -- you've got that warm, fuzzy…" He trails off without smiling. "I wouldn't quit it.

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