Torn between money and safety, some US workers flee Iraq
With kidnappings and killings of US civilians, some recruits steel themselves; others say risk isn't worth it.
HOUSTON — He went to Iraq for the money, he admits. But after a month of working while mortars dropped all around him, civilian contractor Clarence Fountain - shaken and "straddling the fence" about whether he should stay - called a close friend back home in Houston and asked him to help pray for an answer.
A day later, Mr. Fountain's decision was clear: a barrage of mortar attacks at Camp Anaconda that killed one person and put many others in danger convinced him it was time to go home.
"We were in the middle of an attack, with the alarms sounding and people heading for cover, and they told us to continue working. At that point, I knew it was time to come home," he says. "At first, it was about the money. Then it got to the point where I started questioning myself, 'When does it stop being about the money? When does my family start taking the front seat again?' "
Fountain's decision to leave came exactly a week ago. After several days of paperwork and plane flights, he is back home in Humble, just north of Houston. He's one of an untold number of contractors fleeing Iraq as attacks and kidnappings of civilians escalate.
Most who sign on as contract workers say the money is just too good to pass up. Fountain's cargo-document specialist job, for instance, pulls down $30,000 to $40,000 a year here in the US - and triple that in Iraq. Others say patriotism and a sense of adventure fuel their decisions to go.
The US military has long used civilian contractors to help cook meals, wash clothes, and collect trash during deployments. Outsourcing these mundane tasks frees up soldiers to concentrate on fighting. But the number of civilians needed - and the danger involved - has never been greater than in Iraq, analysts say.
Under its contract with the Defense Department, Halliburton has 24,000 employees in the Iraq-Kuwait region. Some 30 employees and subcontractors have been killed since the company arrived last spring. Now, as the first two weeks of April mark the deadliest of the war - with 87 US soldiers and contractors killed, and seven civilian contractors missing - many civilian workers say the money is not worth their lives.
"I saw it as an easy way to make money, but I'll figure out another way," says Stacy Clark, who returned to Houston the same day as Fountain, cutting short his year-long contract with Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
"I have two 16-year-olds who are fixing to need trucks and both are doing extremely well in school," he says. "I just wanted to pay off some of my bills and sock away some money for their college tuition; $80,000 tax free sounds real good, but I value my family more than I do money."
Doing a contractor's most dangerous work, this truck driver noticed an increase in violence about three weeks ago, and last Friday - the same day civilian Tommy Hamill was kidnapped - his convoy was ambushed on the road north of Baghdad.
He thought his friend, Stephen Heering, who was driving the fuel truck ahead of him, was dead when a grenade hit his trailer. But Mr. Heering jumped from his cab and, in a cloud of smoke, ran toward a local mosque where he was quickly surrounded by Iraqis who beat him with rocks and sticks and stuck a gun to his head. He escaped, using his backpack as a weapon, and was picked up a quarter mile down the road by another truck in the convoy.
"I heard my son's voice saying, 'Daddy, come home' and that gave me the power to get up," he told reporters this week at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, where he was met by his wife and son.
Both Heering and Clark say that at first, they felt the three military vehicles accompanying each 30-truck convoy were enough. But not in the past month. "They should have stepped it up and given us more protection," says Clark. "We'd had a lot of rocks thrown at us in little towns and taken some small-arms fire, but after this ambush, I knew it wasn't working."
Fountain also became disillusioned with Halliburton's management, saying the company jeopardizes safety to get the job done. "Bottom line is, it's a money game with them."
Other criticism comes from outside. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution says the military has a longstanding doctrine that it doesn't turn over mission-critical roles to contractors or put them in positions that require them to be armed.
"Basically we've ignored our own doctrine in Iraq," says this national security expert. Unless it is abided by or rewritten, contractors will continue to be in danger.
It's difficult for many civilian workers to understand Iraqis' hatred of them. Some lament the fact that they are helping to better their lives only to be attacked in return. Clark believes many Iraqis don't even understand what's going on. "One day they are waving at us and the next day they're throwing rocks."
Fountain, on the other hand, says he can understand their frustration - though not their violence. "They want their country back. They are happy and real thankful that we took care of Saddam Hussein for them. But they've had their way of life turned upside down by some other country," says this ex-soldier, who flew home with two flag-draped coffins.
Even with unsettling stories from those returning early, people continue to flock to Houston for training in hopes of going to Iraq. A week-long training course includes everything from physical exams to psychological preparation - with an emphasis on the dangers they'll face.
"Not one of our employees leaves the United States for Iraq without thorough ... briefings on the dangers," says Wendy Hall, Halliburton spokeswoman. "We spend most of our time giving recruits all the reasons why they should not accept this job."
So far, that's done little to sway resolve - though news reports may. This week, only 400 of an expected 600 recruits showed up for training, says one recruit leaving for the day. "People are watching the news," he explains. He's been through training and won't back out now: The notion of earning three times what he can here is too tempting, "especially during this bad economy."