Gambling on Iraq

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

"Within two weeks' time, you were closer to guys than the ones at home you'd known for two years," says Perry Singleton of Victoria, Texas, another driver who was based out of Camp Cedar. "By the end of a month's time, Gordon and a lot of the other guys knew my life stories, I knew theirs. Knew the problems with our kids; problems with the ex-wife; problems with the wives. But you didn't really -- you stayed with your five or six guys."

Several drivers say that workers -- especially drivers -- quit in droves. It is anecdotal, of course. Halliburton officially claims an attrition rate of less than 2 percent. The BBC crew says the turnover was the reason guys got in cliques and stayed cool to newcomers.

"You didn't really want to get too close to anybody," says Heering. "You wanted to, but you really didn't 'cause you may be on an airplane tomorrow or you may be in a casket tomorrow.

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.

"Or," he adds, "you may be diggin' me out of a truck all shot up."

The Heering home is set way up in the backwoods of Magnolia, a simple, warm, one-story house at the end of a long gravel driveway. After school one afternoon, Tyler Heering sticks his head out the front door and welcomes a visitor. He is a bright-eyed fourth-grader with smooth, tan skin and buzz-cut dark hair, and he's eager to boast right away about his apparition on April 9.

"My dad heard my voice say, 'Come home, Dad,' " he says proudly.

Whatever voice or vision appeared in Stephen Heering's mind at that split-second crossroads of danger, the effect got him off the ground, swinging and slapping his way out. He broke free and ran toward a truck that emerged from the pack. The frantic Heering hopped onboard just before it, too, took fire. They hauled it to safety at Camp Anaconda, where others were trickling in after some of the worst violence since the fall of Baghdad a year earlier. Heering says that among his convoy, several workers were wounded and about a dozen trucks were lost. That same day, at least four other workers in Iraq were killed as a result of attacks, in addition to the capture -- and subsequent escape -- of driver Thomas Hamill.

Heering made two visits immediately. The first found him in the medic's room, getting treatment for a shoulder injury that healed up after a few weeks. The second was to the HR office, where he asked for a one-way ticket back to Texas. Some things, though, you can't leave behind.

In the days following his return to the United States, Stephen Heering found himself jittery and on edge day and night. Sleep came sporadically. When he did manage to get any rest, he would thrash about and grab his wife if she leaned over to try to give him a kiss.

"I didn't wanna go to sleep," he says. "Every time I closed my eyes, that's all I saw -- was gettin' blown up back in the middle of it." He started worrying that he would hurt one of his sons if they came up and hugged him while he was asleep. At his birthday party, he flipped out and had to be held down when friends tried to give him a joke spanking. On the Fourth of July, his sons sent him running into the house with their firecrackers. Whenever speakers or machines make loud popping noises, he's gripped with immediate panic.

"I don't think," says Heering. "It's just a reaction." His brother, Charlie, says that though he's improved over time, he probably won't be all right for the rest of his life. Other drivers share some of Heering's problems.

"It took me almost two months just to get my head screwed back on straight just to go back to work," says Johnson. "I had a job when I came back and told 'em I actually didn't want to leave the house. I didn't want to leave the safety of the house. And from what I understand -- and this was from one of KBR's own insurance adjusters -- that probably 75 percent of the people that come back have to go under psychiatric care for a while." Johnson adds that he knew some guys that actually got sent back to the States because their nerves were so frayed.

Of course, the damage isn't just psychological. Norm Bigham, 58, a Beaumont resident who drove in Johnson's convoy, was hit broadside just past the meat market north of Baghdad and got flown back home because of injuries. He lost 80 percent of the hearing in his left ear and has steel plates and screws in his neck for two busted vertebrae. He continues to take nerve pills along with pain pills and muscle relaxants.

"I just thank the good Lord I'm alive," says Bigham. Of the lingering pain, he shrugs: "I figured it'd go away, but it hasn't." His grandson's fireworks scared the hell out of him, too.

"Those are some of the core symptoms of PTSD," says Dr. Paula Schnurr, deputy executive director at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "Having unwanted thoughts, nightmares, even flashbacks, which are rarer. Then avoiding reminders or being numb or kind of cut off from people. And lastly being hyperaroused, being jittery, being hypervigilant, having trouble sleeping."

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