Gambling on Iraq

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

"These are very harsh, very dangerous environments. When you come in for processing, you're coming in soon to deploy. And we're counting on each and every one of you for at least a year. Other questions?"

Stephen Heering wasn't much different from a lot of the civilians going over. A skinny guy with thin hair, the faint blond trace of a Marlboro Man mustache and blue eyes like limpid swimming pools, Stephen Heering went to Iraq to make a buck. The native Houstonian grew up in Missouri City and went to mechanics school straight out of high school.

Gordon Johnson says he needed two months to get 
his head screwed on straight after returning from Iraq.
Gordon Johnson says he needed two months to get his head screwed on straight after returning from Iraq.

"Then I realized you could make more money driving 'em than turning wrenches, and it's a whole lot cleaner," he says. During summers, Heering, a Little League umpire in Magnolia, would bring Tyler, his younger son, on the road with him to see the country. They'd bunk together in the truck at night and keep each other awake on long hauls.

Heering heard about the lucrative KBR gig through a friend, and his wife, Crissy, applied for him one day over the Internet. The lure of big money brightened a worrisome financial picture. Graduation was approaching soon for his older son, Travis, and Heering wanted to be able to send him off to the college he never had.

"He's 16 years old -- one more year of high school, college -- life just started hitting me, man," says Heering. "This was a way of making a bunch of money real fast." He had been averaging about $30,000 in his job -- "these days that's not a whole lotta bread" -- when he got offered a guaranteed $80,000 with KBR (which more than likely would've been closer to $120,000 by the end).

The turnaround last December came quick. He got the call at dusk one evening.

"I remember at the end of the phone conversation I said, 'Well, you know, when am I going to find out if I, uh, got the job?' [The recruiter] said, 'You had the job the second you answered the phone.' I said, 'Oh. Uhh. Wow.' "

With Heering having worked his whole life as a trucker, saying good-bye was a familiar routine. The family just looked at it like he'd be gone on a really, really long road trip, which, in a sense, was true. On the flight over, Heering says, six people got off at the airport in Ireland and never got back on. When the plane touched down in Kuwait, an announcement came over the loudspeaker.

"He said, 'Whatever you heard in Houston, forget about it, it does not apply here,' " says Heering. "I looked at Stacy [Clark, another driver from Houston], I said, 'Oh, my God, what did we get ourselves into?' And I thought this was just a greenhorn joke." In the first several days, he worried more about his family back home than he did about the desert terrain that stretched before him. What if someone broke into the house? What if someone murdered the whole family?

Christmas came and went. Depressingly. In all his years on the road, that had been the one holiday he never missed. This year, all he had was a sad tree in a soulless mess hall. He settled in at his home camp and worked days that lasted anywhere from ten to 17 hours. He found the relentless work an unlikely blessing. It made the time go by more quickly and meant that his mind was lonely and idle for only a little while after dinner.

His convoy faced attacks almost daily. Sandstorms would blot out sight lines as trucks vanished into sheets of dust not 20 feet ahead. Locals would throw rocks and fire guns at them, smashing and spidering windshields and blowing out tires.

"The gunfire -- it got to be where it was almost, you know, a joke, 'cause you'd hear the shells bounce off your tank and you'd be like, 'God dang! You know, 'nother day!' " Heering jokes. His second week in the country, he got popped with an IED (improvised explosive device) that splattered shrapnel upside his truck, scarring it with singed pockmarks and stinging his eardrums for ten days.

Two things probably kept him sane from December until April.

The first was that KBR had phones that allowed employees to make free calls to Houston area codes as much as they wanted. Stephen dialed Crissy just about every night, and she would pick up the phone in the morning here. Back home, Crissy was insulating herself from anything related to Iraq. The only news that mattered came when that phone call connected them.

"I never watched the news the whole time. 'Cause if I saw something, I'll be like, 'Oh, my gosh! Is that Stephen?' " she says. "I'd sit at work, 'Is that Steve?' Every time it rang: 'Is that Steve?' 'Is that Steve?' "

The second thing that kept Stephen Heering sane was brotherhood. Gordon Johnson, a "charter member" of Heering's BBC crew, explains that the danger brought the crew closer.

"We got to where we actually depended on each other for if anything happened. You know, if we got -- our truck got disabled, we were depending on those guys to pull us out," says Johnson. "And that was one thing my girlfriend had a problem with when I come back. When somebody would call that I knew from over there, I would just drop everything and talk to 'em. And I'd say, I told her, I says, you know, we got to be closer than family in a very short time." Put into military conditions -- without the weapons of a soldier -- they grew tight to survive both mentally and physically.

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