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War dangers don't deter U.S. workers

Despite the dangers, thousands of Americans are competing for jobs with government contractors in Iraq.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Late on the night of April 9, Sylvia and Allen Petty sat on the front porch of their small rental house here in the hill country northwest of Austin and talked about the future. With six daughters, ages 4 months to 14, it was the only time of day they had to themselves, what they called their "midnight dates."

They had been discussing for a couple weeks the idea of Allen Petty, 31, going to Iraq. Two fellow truck drivers at his company in the adjoining town of Marble Falls had already left for jobs as truck drivers for KBR, a subsidiary of Houston-based Halliburton Co.

That very day, insurgents in Iraq had attacked a KBR convoy and killed four contract employees. But Allen Petty's $30,000 salary just didn't stretch far enough. The family had no insurance, no money for movies or new clothes, no savings, no credit, and their car was on loan from Sylvia Petty's father.

"We really prayed," Sylvia Petty recalled. "This is a beautiful town, but we're not making it here. I told him, 'Baby, you have to go.' "

Allen Petty applied to KBR for a truck-driving job the next day, one of thousands of Americans competing, despite the dangers, for jobs with the government contractors working to supply the military or rebuild the country. After a week of training, he left for Iraq the first Saturday in May.

Many of the KBR recruits, like Petty, are working poor. They are willing to dare the hardship of 12- to 14-hour days seven days a week, and the risk of kidnapping or worse, given the beheading of Nicholas Berg, to bring back $80,000 or $100,000 in a year.

KBR has 24,000 workers in Iraq now, about half of them from the United States. The workers have gone to drive trucks, cook meals, and build and operate base camps as part of a contract with the U.S. Army to provide logistical support to the troops. The company has used 51 recruiters and 30 job fairs this year to find people to fill the positions.

And even with the continuing violence, the applications keep coming in, the company says, mostly from southern states or the East Coast. KBR has thousands of résumés on file and is processing 400 to 500 workers a week to go to Iraq.

The April 9 convoy attack changed very little, said John Watson, a KBR recruiting supervisor. "For some, it was a reality check and they decided they didn't want to go. We also saw a huge level of patriotism, so it leveled out," he said.

Clifford Dunning, 28, an Army veteran who is now a barge worker from Kentucky and single father of a 2-year-old, headed to Iraq this month to be a logistics coordinator for KBR. The main motivation, he said: "Look, everyone here, it's about the income."

Preparing for trouble
In a large circle ringed with chairs, in a converted J.C. Penney's in Houston, a group of 50 KBR recruits -- mostly men in blue jeans and boots -- pulled on yellow plastic suits as an instructor yelled, "Gas! gas! gas!"

"Take a moment and calm yourself down," he told them. "If you don't get it right, you're out of here and you'll have to start over."

As the workers pulled on gloves and rubber boots, he went around checking to make sure they had put their masks on properly.

"Did you do a buddy check on her?" he asked one pair of workers. "You couldn't have. She's got hair in her mask. You need to fix it."

The drill, designed to teach workers how to put on protective suits in case of a biological or chemical weapon attack, are part of a week-long training course that Allen Petty and other KBR recruits take before heading to Iraq.

It is an Ellis Island of sorts. Everyone arriving at the orientation has a verbal offer, but each must pass a battery of tests and drills, including drug screening, a medical exam and security clearance.

KBR offers its workers one-year, open-ended contracts, which means the employee, the company or the federal government can cancel it at any time. Every four months, workers get 10 paid days off, plus up to $860 to cover travel expenses. Their salaries, like those of other Americans working abroad, are tax-free up to $80,000. And the company offers medical insurance coverage for employees and their families, plus $25,000 worth of life insurance, as part of a government requirement covering workplace injuries.

Allen Petty is not going to Iraq to get rich, he said during a pause in the training. . No, he was going so that when he comes back he can build a house for his family "from the ground up."

When he said this, he used his hands to make a square, emphasizing that the house he builds with his own hands will belong to them.

"Before the 9th, it was about the money," he said, referring to the April date when the KBR convoy was attacked, a date that has become the 9/11 for civilian contractors in Iraq. "After the kidnappings, I considered that being a truck driver, they're still going to need somebody to supply the job sites. I'm excited in a way and scared of the unexpected. But the job part, it's just like driving here. It's automatic."

Like Petty, James Watkins, another recruit at orientation, has six children -- three boys and three girls, all teenagers. Watkins, a food service worker in Georgia, was going to Iraq to be a cook for KBR.

"Me and my wife talked about it," he said from Houston before he left. "There's some concern. The money is good. It's a big incentive but it's not the only reason. There is also a sense of pride and duty."

Watkins said he has been lecturing his children about responsibility as they get near college age. "I've been telling them about obstacles and risks to get what they want," he said. "As a parent you've got to put into action what you're saying in words."

In Iraq, Watkins said, he will earn twice what he made while working for Cysco Foods.

'It's not Disneyland'
For many KBR recruits, the road to Iraq starts at a job fair like the one held at a Holiday Inn in Wichita Falls, near the Texas-Oklahoma border, the same Saturday Allen Petty boarded a plane for overseas.

Chris Ward delivered the reverse of the usual recruiter's pitch. He tried to convince applicants at a job fair not to go.

"We want people to know exactly what they're getting into," he explained during a break. The company has lost 34 people in Iraq -- 13 contract employees and 21 who worked for subcontractors.

Standing before a group of 50 applicants in a beige-colored meeting room, he ticked off the reasons they should re-consider.

"It's not Disneyland," he said. "It's a war zone. This is not even the Balkans. The average temperature is 120 degrees. Last year, we had to send more people home because of dehydration and mild heat stroke. You will be in eight to 10-man tents on a cot. Plumbing is not the first thing we put in when we build a base camp. Expect to be dirty most of the time. This is a dust bowl. Dust will get in your eyes and find places you didn't know you had. There are mice, camel spiders, ticks, fleas and scorpions."

A hand shot up from the audience.

"How big are those camel spiders?"

Ward held up his hand and stretched his fingers. "They are as big as a hand," he said.

"We work. We eat. We sleep," he continued. "That's about it. You will work eight to 12 hours a day if not more. If we worked an eight-hour shift every day, you'd have 16 hours to hate us."

Michael Doerschuk, 31, a machine operator at a steel manufacturing plant, brought his wife and two young sons along from their hometown of Electra, about 25 miles away.

Doerschuk said he came only for information. He wasn't sure he would go. "This is the only problem," he said, pointing to his sons.

Leaving his wife and boys outside when the meeting started, he joined the line of applicants turning in résumés to a recruiter who separated the paperwork by job.

Fork lift operator. Food Service. Fuel. Labor foreman. Firefighter. HVAC mechanic. Each man and a few women called out their preferred position as they walked in.

Outside, Doerschuk's wife, JoAnn, smoked and paced. "I wish I didn't have kids right now," she said, "because I'd go."

After Ward finished outlining what life would be like in Iraq, he told the group that if someone's name was called, that person could be offered a job on the spot.

Doerschuk heard his name and stood up.

He paced while waiting to talk to a recruiter. "I'm tired of living paycheck to paycheck," he said. "I could do this a year and be debt-free." As he talked, he grew more excited. He could finally finish school and work in computers. Heck, he could open his own computer shop.

But then there were his boys. He had promised himself after working night shifts and not being around for his first son that he wouldn't do that again. He loved when the youngest fell asleep on his chest.

Offer in hand, he went out to tell his wife.

"You have to do it," she told him.

He went back and told the recruiter he would be in touch. His wife was having surgery next month, and his father had cancer. He needed a few weeks to think about it.

"If you're on the fence, here's my advice," Ward had said. "Don't go. Some job fair, huh? Until you're 100 percent ready to go, don't go.

'You know what to do'

Go, the reverend told the congregation at Grace Christian Center in Killeen the first Sunday that Allen Petty was not sitting next to his wife. Go, he told them, is two-thirds of the word, God. Sylvia Petty nodded at the words.

They had a chance, Sylvia Petty said later, to go to Austin, where her husband could get more work and make more money. She could finally get her sign-language certification. But they don't want to move to a big city. "We don't want to be scared all of the time," she said.

Still, she is tired of not being able to afford the doctor that 18-month-old Lydia needs for a pestering ear infection. Sylvia Petty needs to fix her teeth, and Erica, the oldest child at 14, needs braces. They've had to rely on a local food bank once a month for the past five months. They have no telephone.

"The worst part is when we go to the store and the girls are with me and they ask for Fruit Roll-ups," she said. "Or when your kids' eyes are wide when the refrigerator is full and they say, 'We're rich because we have food.' "

But with the money her husband was going to earn in Iraq, she said, "Life is going to change a lot. We can move into a new house. And get good blankets and go somewhere this summer."

After school one afternoon, as they sat in the car in the driveway, she told the children that their dad was leaving. "I said, 'Daddy is going to Iraq.' They asked if he would get captured and I told them no because they have new military support.' "

The last time they talked on a telephone before he left, Sylvia Petty ran through a list of last-minute things. How often did the oil needed to be changed in the car? Should she look for a house while he was gone?

"Mama," he told her, using a pet name, "you know what to do."

After church ended, Sylvia Petty stood at the entrance with the girls waiting for her husband to bring the car around. She stood there until she remembered that he was on his way to Iraq, and she would have to get the car herself.

She walked across the parking lot with the girls in tow.