Aug. 16, 2011 at 6:00 AM ET
Artillery fire led directly to our first conversation. Blasts in the distance awoke Jadiam Lopez at 4:30 a.m., as often happens, so he e-mailed me.
"We just had incoming. We can talk now if you like," he wrote.
At most firehouses, the alarm that wakes firefighters in the middle of the night means it’s time to go to work saving property, or lives. In Iraq, nightly alarms mean grab your “battle rattle” and save yourself.
Years of punishing recession and persistent high unemployment rates have places millions of Americans in places and situations they'd never dreamed of. For Lopez, that place is a government complex in Ramadi, Iraq, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. After years of being unable to land a firefighter job near his home in Miami, Lopez took a job as a government contractor fighting fires in the war zone. He's just completing his first year there.
"No money is worth risking your life over, but I had to do it to provide for my family," said Lopez, who spoke to me in a series of e-mails and telephone conversations from Iraq.
Faced with mounting credit card debt and with a 3-year-old son to feed, Lopez, 31, made the difficult choice to leave home and head to the Middle East. He'd considered becoming a firefighter in Iraq since 2006, but by last year, he felt he had run out of options.
"I'm doing it out of necessity. I got into this situation, with the economy going down. If I wasn't in debt, I wouldn't have come over here," he said.
The dual menace of credit card debt and unemployment has left many Americans looking for a way out; for Jadiam, the war has provided his financial escape route.
Lopez spent his 20s working for his mom's small health-care business. Changes in Medicare law devastated the business, cutting sharply into his income at the same time his son was born. He took on a second job, but he still couldn't keep up with his bills or afford to rent an apartment where he could live with his child and girlfriend. By 2010, he'd racked up $60,000 in credit card debt.
"I was in so much debt that I was working two jobs and still couldn't afford to live on my own and spend quality time with my son. And I said, 'All right, it's time to take a look at Iraq,' " Lopez said. Once a crazy idea, going to Iraq now seemed an obvious choice. Salaries for firefighters there start at $90,000, with food and housing provided. And in many cases, the salary is tax free.
Still, he said nothing prepared him for landing in a war zone.
"It's more of wait and see if you can stomach it when you land at Baghdad International Airport," he said. "My first nights at the Victory Base for In-processing you would hear the Blackhawks shooting their 50 (caliber guns) near the base. Then I and the rest of my guys that got hired together were like, 'Oh boy, here we are.' "
Life in Iraq is an odd mixture of boredom and danger, Lopez said. Fires at the government complex are rare, so most of the job involves fire code inspections. He never goes off base, or "outside the wire," where the danger is greater. Random mortar fire is occasionally lobbed in their direction, but without much accuracy. Still, firefighters live with the knowledge that there is always a risk.
"We all kind of have engraved in our heads if it's your time, it's your time,” he said. There are weekly firefights among local Iraqis “outside the wire” and bomb blasts rattle the compound as often as three or four times a week.
The immediate danger can seem remote, but any travel outside the compound is extremely dangerous. Trips to and from Baghdad are probably the most risky, Lopez said, as the firefighters travel in Blackhawk helicopters across dangerous territory.
“You adapt to your surroundings, which I never thought I would. When you first hear the siren go off, all you have time is to analyze where you are. Do I have time to get my battle rattle or do I just run to the bunker," Lopez said, referring to his ballistic vest and helmet. “What sucks is when you’re out in the open and the alarm goes off and you have no bunker in sight. That’s when you say to yourself, ‘I hope it's not my time.’ "
So far, the odds have been kind to Lopez. As he winds down his one-year commitment, no one in his group has been injured. Meanwhile, he's earned enough money to eliminate his credit card debt and sock away nearly $20,000. The experience has him ready to sign up for a second year.
"Yes it will be worth it. I am now debt free and I would hope this time next year to have saved close to $80,000,” he said. "But if I go back now I'd have to have two jobs. If I can muster another year it will really benefit my family."
Those odds don't work for everyone, however. Lopez said only eight of the 14 firefighters in his training class are still working in Iraq.
Daily life there is mundane: there is no alcohol, and no visits from members of the opposite sex are allowed. The firefighters live in small trailers -- some have bathrooms, others require use of shared toilets and showers. Entertainment comes from an occasional game of volleyball, and watching whatever DVDs make their way onto the base.
"We have no social life here. You wake up, do your job, you go back to sleep," he said.
Despite the boredom, the dangers are real. In late December, two large bombs exploded outside the complex, "rattling everyone here" and killing 20 Iraqi civilians.
Civilian contractors are carrying an increasingly large part of the burden in war zones, and during 2010, there were more contractors than uniformed military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to congressional reports. They are bearing a particularly large burden in Iraq, where the U.S. has officially ended combat operations and left behind only tactical personnel. Contractors are bearing more of the consequences, too: A report by ProPublica last year found that, for the first time, corporations lost more personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan than the U.S. military. In the first six months of 2010, 250 contractors were killed, compared to 235 soldiers.
There are unexpected consequences of this shift on the home front, too. Some U.S. fire departments have lost experienced firefighters to lucrative jobs in the war zones. In 2006, the fire chief in Rocky Mount, N.C., told the Wilmington StarNewsOnline that fully one-fifth of his department had resigned to take positions in Iraq, something he called the "Iraq phenomenon."
It's easy to understand why: One of Lopez's pals was working stateside for about $25,000 and paying taxes. The lure of $90,000 in tax-exempt earnings was irresistible.
The money creates other complications though. Contractors don't always have the smoothest relationship with military personnel. One firefighter complained about resentment and tension on a bulletin board devoted to the issue recently.
"Military can sometimes be difficult to deal with because they don't want to be there and they see you as someone who's making a crap load of money while they are busting their butts for little pay," the anonymous author wrote. Lopez said he hadn't had that experience -- many soldiers had even asked him for advice on how to join the contractor ranks -- "but I do know a friend at another site who tells me military won't even talk to them," he said.
They money can quite literally be life changing, however. Lopez’s friend from Mississippi was struggling to survive and care for his wife and three children.
"How's he supposed to make it on $25,000? In his first year here he was debt free and is now going on his fourth year. He's done really well," he said. "His kids go to great schools, he has good money, and he has properties with rent coming in, so coming over here was good for him."
Lopez has seen contractors who seem to be addicted to the easy money, and forget about life at home. But Lopez has a plan; his girlfriend, who is raising their child at her mom's home, will finish her bachelor’s degree in the next year. After one more year of duty in Iraq, he figures he can move home and start their family on solid financial footing.
"What’s important to know is we are all firefighters who weren't making enough money at home," he said.
For now, though, he must live "inside the wire," for all but the two 15-day vacations he receives during the year. While most of his colleagues spend that time "seeing the world," he spent the entire month of May in Miami so he could be with his son on his third birthday.
"It's a sacrifice on her part and on my part,” he said. “It's pretty sad how the economy has taken a hit on everybody. It's pretty amazing.”