At night, after their work was finished and the desert moon had risen over their camp, some of the civilian truckers who hauled military supplies across Iraq would gather at their base in Kuwait and watch videos.
They watched the same two or three clips over and over again, fast-forwarding through some scenes, rewinding to replay others, pausing to stare at the screen. In each, they noted the way the victim's hands were bound. They counted the seconds between the time his neck was cut open and when he stopped struggling. They would tie one another up and practice how to escape a similar fate at the hands of anti-American insurgents.
Allen Petty, who went to Iraq to drive a truck for KBR, the Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton, said he was soon able to calculate how long it took a beheaded man to die: "Between seven and 15 seconds."
"There's a reason we watched those videos," explained Petty, 32. The truckers figured there was little they could do to ensure they wouldn't be kidnapped, so they tried to prepare for how to escape if they were.
Watching the videos, Petty said, "was our weapon."
'He brought the war home'
But by the end of August, Petty, who went to Iraq to earn enough money to build a house for his wife and six girls, had had enough.
He had dodged roadside bombs, mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and bullets as he drove his unarmored flatbed between U.S. military bases in Iraq. He had lived that unnerving fear of being kidnapped by men in black hoods. And he was earning no more than he made driving a truck in the United States, with an extra run to Mississippi thrown in.
So four months into a one-year contract, Petty came home to his family in Burnet, population 4,735. He was a broken man, said his wife, Sylvia Petty, profoundly different from the person who had left Texas in May hoping to return free of debt.
"He brought the war home," Sylvia said. "His character changed. He is at the bottom of the barrel."
Allen Petty returned to the same life he had tried to escape, only this time without a job. His former employer would not rehire him.
He was jumpy, nervous, depressed -- exhibiting signs of traumatic stress months after he returned -- but was unable to seek professional help. KBR offered counseling in Houston, 226 miles southeast of here, but the family said there was no way they could afford the gas to get there and back.
Sylvia said her husband seemed crushed by the weight of having failed to provide for his girls.
The Petty family rang in the New Year sad and depressed. The girls looked up at their father, Sylvia recalled, and asked when he would find a job. He couldn't look back at them. "Nobody wants your daddy," he told his daughters.
"It's been the most awful week," Sylvia said, "and things keep getting worse."
When Allen Petty signed up for a year in Iraq with KBR — the largest U.S. government contractor there, with more than 30,000 employees and subcontractors — he expected to bring home $80,000 to $100,000, more than three times what he made driving a truck in Texas.
Some of his friends thought he was insane to risk his life for a paycheck, but Petty said he and his wife, both on their second marriages, prayed about it and decided this was their only hope. They were barely getting by on his $30,000 income, they said in interviews in May. They had no savings whatsoever, no insurance, and they owed Sylvia's mother $6,000 for their wedding less than three years before.
"This is a beautiful town, but we're not making it here," Sylvia said at the time. "I told him, 'Baby, you have to go.' " During Allen's first weeks and months in Iraq, the couple found ways to cope. Allen didn't tell his family everything he was going through; Sylvia avoided the news. Allen sent money home, and Sylvia repaid her mother about a third of what they owed her.
Sylvia planted flowers outside the corner house on Main Street that they rent from her parents. She bought the children treats and planned a cruise for the family. She was able to afford more healthful food for herself and the children. She lost 25 pounds, and her face was tanned from working in the garden.
Allen bought handcrafted wedding rings in Kuwait. He purchased a laptop computer so they could communicate by e-mail and instant message.
In retrospect, the couple now say they should have been saving more. But it was the first time they had had a little extra money, and it felt so good not to worry about the bills.
In July, the money started to dry up, the family said. The couple put half of Allen's paycheck in their savings account but kept having to dig into it to pay expenses.
"Most of this money went to backed-up bills, and what was left went to food and clothes and dental needs for the kids," Sylvia said. "There was no money ever left over because everything in the savings had to be transferred into the checking every month."
According to the family's bank statements, Allen earned between $2,000 and $4,000 a month during his time in Iraq, far short of the $8,000 to $12,000 monthly sum he said he had expected.
"KBR led people into their job opportunities with false promises," Sylvia said.
But Allen acknowledged that his expectations were probably unrealistic and that KBR recruiters had stressed at the outset that the job was no way to get rich. At least, he said, he expected to get paid more than he would in the United States, particularly as the security situation in Iraq worsened, making his job even more dangerous.
Stephanie Price, a spokeswoman for KBR, confirmed that Petty's pay was reduced when the State Department cut pay levels for Kuwait-based contractors in July. She said their base salaries were cut 15 percent "to reflect current threat levels in that country."
But truck drivers based in Kuwait who traveled into Iraq — as Allen typically did — were still eligible for hazardous duty pay, an increase of 55 percent of their base salary, Price said, adding that KBR raised truckers' pay in August to "reflect the hard work and dedication of those who put their lives on the line daily as they drive through hostile areas to deliver needed military supplies."
Price said that as of Jan. 6, 68 employees of KBR and its main subcontractors had been killed in Iraq. She said the company does not release the number of employees who were wounded. One employee is still missing.
'The fear is everywhere'
Allen, who drove mostly in southern Iraq, said his convoy was attacked on at least five out of every six runs.
"They did warn us. You'd take rocks. IEDs were the biggest concern of all," he said, using the initials for improvised explosive device, the military jargon for a roadside bomb. "There were things like small-arms fire, wild bullets. One of the scariest nights was when the military stopped the convoy and we sat in the dark for two hours."
After Allen returned home, Sylvia said she knew he was hiding his fear from her. But at least "he knows where the enemy is," she said. "For me, the fear is everywhere. That fear of the unknown has to be the worst feeling in the world."
By August, as kidnappings of foreigners escalated and after his pay had fallen, Allen started to pray harder about whether he should stay. "I didn't tell my family it was getting so bad," he said. "But I talked to God, and he told me it was time to come home."
Sylvia said the children were initially excited when they heard their father was coming home. But soon, she said, the meaning of it sank in.
"The kids are just so heartbroken," Sylvia said. "Naomi, she is really super-smart. Over breakfast, when she found out, she said, 'It's over, isn't it? We're not going to get our house. What are we doing wrong?' "
It was late September, and the air was just starting to turn crisp. As her husband sat in an overstuffed chair and turned his head toward the window, Sylvia twisted her hands in the fold of her shirt, hiding the fingernails she had clipped the night before. While Allen was away in Iraq, she had her nails manicured for the first time since they were married.
Her husband went to Iraq with hopes of earning money for a house, but Sylvia had smaller dreams. She wanted her refrigerator to be full, her girls to have blankets on their beds, her rotting teeth to be fixed. She wanted to be able to afford to take 2-year-old Lydia to the doctor for a persistent ear infection. She wanted to look nice for her husband.
The night before, she and Allen had argued. They both were frustrated, uncertain about what lay ahead.
Sylvia was thinking about starting a home jewelry business. Allen offered to get a job at McDonald's. "I said, 'I can't see you in a silly hat flipping burgers,' " Sylvia recalled.
Allen said he was considering going back to work overseas, but only if he could be gone for 30 days at a time — and not be in a war zone. He recently had read about job opportunities with UNICEF, he said.
The family now lives on about $80 a week in child support that Sylvia's former husband sends for the older children. "I know it's not right," Sylvia said, "but we don't know what else to do."
Sylvia wants her husband to understand what it was like to be left, to care for the children alone, to manage their dreams, to watch it all disappear.
"I knew it was over when the water hose broke," she said. "The neighbors saw the flowers outside dying. The water hose breaks, and you can't get a new one. We're back to barely making it."
Allen doesn't want to talk about what happened.
He spends the nights when he cannot sleep looking at the pictures and video footage he took in Iraq. There's the one of a buddy waving as he passed Petty's truck on an Iraqi highway. There are images of burning limbs, bleeding bodies, dead civilians, dead soldiers, rubble. Allen stares at each photo.
He recalled a hand-printed sign that someone had put up near the lounge where the civilian contractors hung out in Kuwait. He wrote it down because it spoke to him. He fetched it from a scrapbook.
It read: "I got no medals, patches or awards. You tell your story so loved ones can hear. I've been cautioned to keep quiet my job to fear. No one knows us; we're just hurting, bleeding and dying. We're just contractors."
Days after he returned from Iraq, Allen said, he felt a tingling in his chest. He struggled to breathe. Sylvia took him to the hospital, where he was kept for a week while doctors ran a battery of tests. They said he had a heart abnormality that was probably there before he went to Iraq but had gone undetected.
Now, even if he wanted to go back, he could not, Allen said, sounding somewhat relieved.
Sylvia said she is angry with KBR.
"This was KBR," she said. "This was the big time. I'm just so disappointed no one took responsibility for the little guy."
"No," Allen interrupted. "It's not really KBR. The military calls the shots. KBR is the military's customer."
One of the girls banged a chair, and Allen jumped. He pulled the baby to his chest.
"I forget what she looks like, and then I see her, and she's beautiful," he said. "She has these curls. It amazes me."
He looked off.
"My mind wanders," he said. "I'm here, but I'm not."