Gambling on Iraq
On the day before all hell breaks loose, the worst day of the American occupation in Iraq thus far, Stephen Heering shouldn't even be making a run.
It's Thursday, April 8, 2004, and in the groggy haze of predawn, the clock reads "0500." The 34-year-old veteran truck driver has been in the country for almost four months now. Some much-needed R&R shimmers along the desert horizon. He's scheduled to fly back from Kuwait to his home north of Houston on April 22.
Normally, Heering says, Kellogg Brown & Root doesn't send guys out on convoy runs in the two weeks leading up to vacation. You never know what might happen out there, and if you got stuck at another base, you could miss your flight. Last night, Heering thought he was done. Thought that he could breathe easy. He pulled his stuff out of the truck and turned in the keys.
Then his KBR supervisor told him they were shorthanded and asked him to make one last drive up to Camp Anaconda, 70 klicks north of Baghdad, or about a six-hour drive on a very, very good day. If he pitched in, he could catch a flight down to Kuwait and have a little extra time on the beach. Pick up a few souvenirs for the wife and kids.
Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 12:00pm
Rice Owls Football vs. North Texas
TicketsSat., Nov. 25, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
TicketsSun., Dec. 10, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
TicketsMon., Dec. 25, 3:30pm
Houston Open - Good Any One Day Grounds
TicketsSun., Apr. 1, 11:59pm
So that's why he finds himself back in the cab of his truck, buckled in, a Kevlar helmet on his head and a 40-pound steel-plate vest slung over his shoulders. He's got pictures of Crissy and their two boys next to the speedometer; his yellow Arabic taxicab sign (a "good luck charm") is sitting on the dashboard.
"In the mornings, I'd wake up, man, and I'd pray. I got sooo close to God when I went over to Iraq," he says. "You'd pray, 'Man, please let me just make one more mission, let me just make it back to the base.' "
For a month in the spring, God had seemed pretty attentive. Heering's former convoy, earlier christened the BBC, or Boom Boom Crew, for the frequency they took heat, had enjoyed a month of relatively smooth sailing.
"[We] started joking around, said, 'Man, but when we get it, we're gonna get it good,' " says Heering. "And, sure enough, we did."
The convoy commander knows that Heering shouldn't even be going out that day, so he gives him a good spot, second in line. Heering says that 90 percent of the time, the first five trucks will get through without any problems. Moreover, the first group of fuel tankers (typically 30 in all) carries JP-8 jet fuel; next in line is diesel; and bringing up the rear is "mo-gas," which is so flammable, one driver says transporting it is "like riding a big stick of dynamite."
The odds are stacked in Stephen Heering's favor -- as far as that goes hauling around fuel in a war zone -- but the morning starts out ominously. An explosive is spotted right outside their Camp Cedar 2 home base. Heering's never heard of one being so close to Cedar. He radios the commander: "Man, we're off to a bad start."
After a six-hour delay, they finally take off, heading north from near Al-Nasiriyah to Camp Scania, 180 klicks south of Baghdad. They refuel there and swap out military police, but the main supply route to Baghdad International Airport is closed because of explosives in the road. Heering's group must stay the night in Scania.
"We called it the Gates of Hell, 'cause once you passed [Scania], that's where you were at," he says of the dangerous stretch leading into Baghdad. He sleeps in his truck and has breakfast the next morning while the road is swept clean of mines. Another driver notices that, strangely, no Iraqis show up to the base that morning -- Friday, April 9 -- to sell goods to foreigners at the "Haji mart." At 0930, they push off for Baghdad.
When another explosive brings the convoy to a halt not far from the airport, the bullets start flying. A soldier likens the sound to golf balls pinging off metal drums, but it's small-arms fire, nothing unusual, and they escape without serious injury or damage. After checking tires, tankers and windshields, and punching in a report with coordinates, Heering says, the military escorts decide to proceed on to Anaconda. Getting into Baghdad is one headache; getting out is another.
Truck drivers speak in grim parlance about this road out of the capital. Officially, it's known as Highway 1. One driver calls it "the widowmaker"; another, "blood alley." When Stephen Heering finds his convoy on a stretch referred to as "the meat market" -- because of the slaughtered animals usually hanging along a roadside bazaar -- he tenses up. This road typically is choked with traffic -- "like drivin' in downtown Houston at rush hour," jokes Heering -- but today the area has cleared out. Something's not right.
Minutes later, outside a small town, the message comes across the wire: Seek shelter immediately -- convoys being ambushed. At this point, though, they can't turn back. It's quicker to get to Camp Anaconda.
Heering thinks he's the first one to get hit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.