Gambling on Iraq

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

She says that while researchers within the field have long studied PTSD in workers as well as soldiers, public awareness about the disorder's effect on civilians employed in war zones has come about only recently. What's more, the idea of having PTSD is stigmatizing enough that many avoid seeking the psychiatric care that could help them work through the aftermath.

"Of course, doesn't that make sense? If you've just been in Iraq, being on alert would be very adaptive," says Schnurr. "But you need to learn how to turn it off now that you're back home."

Stephen Heering has not sought professional help to sort out his condition. He projects anger onto KBR. He's supported the war 100 percent from the beginning and would gladly join the troops if called up in a draft and, this time, given a weapon. His confusion about why KBR workers endured daily attacks has been replaced by hardened feelings toward the whole situation.

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.

"I don't care about any of 'em. None of them whatsoever. If they dropped a nuclear warhead on the middle of Baghdad right now, wouldn't hurt my feelings at all," says Heering. "I've never had so much hatred towards a human being since I've been back. And I hate being that way."

Beneath the tremors and beneath the bitterness, Heering is haunted, too, by guilt. He speaks little of it, not even to Crissy, but about a month before the ambush, he ran over a boy who he believed had a grenade.

The kid seemed to be about the same age as Travis.

"Man, that, that still haunts me to this day," he says. "I can still see his eyes."

Some of the alumni of Iraq say that KBR paints an honest picture of the danger. Stephen Heering just doubts that anyone who hasn't experienced it firsthand could ever know the whole story.

"I'm not telling anybody not to go over there. And that was never my intentions," he says. "I just want 'em to know, for a moment, don't think about the money. Don't think about what you can have or nothing like that. Think about what would your family do if you're not there, if you don't come home."

On the wall in the living room of the Heering home, just over the fireplace, Stephen has hung a few short articles he was in that came out right when he got back.

"It's just for to remind me every day of what happened and that nothing's really that important," he says. Though it was money that lured him into the line of fire, he says now, "Money's not worth dyin' over." These days, he's back on the road again, hauling steel up to Dallas and bringing shingles back to Houston. I-45 traffic has probably never seemed sweeter.

On the night that he retells his story, the night that the news announces that another civilian has been beheaded, Heering has on a T-shirt that says, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." On the back of it, scrawled over a map of the region, it reads: "Been there. Done that. Got the shirt."

Sunsets in Iraq were one of his few pleasures. He thinks back fondly on those moments at dusk when the desert sun would cascade through bands of purple and orange and red -- a sign that he'd made it through another day.

The sun has gone down in Magnolia, and it is pitch-black on the gravel driveway leading out to the road. All is quiet. Having revisited the ambush in his mind, Stephen Heering probably won't sleep tonight.

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