Event Blog

Road Warriors: Life as a Contractor on the Highways in Iraq

What makes any sane person pack up and leave the cozy confines of the USA or Europe, their family and to a larger extent life as they know it, to go work in a war zone? What makes men and women alike from nearly every corner of the earth do the same thing? 

For me; the job market in San Diego tanked- wages were low for truck drivers. I hastily applied with KBR on a whim late at night while searching for jobs. To my surprise I received a phone call the next day. After going through the paperwork shuffle and a quick vacation back east to see family- I was off to KBR's processing center in Houston, TX. In reality we were employees of KBR's off shore company- Service Employees International, Inc.- or SEII- for short. From Houston I was bound for Iraq via Atlanta, London and, Dubai. The job I performed was essentially the same job I had in the Marines back in the 1990's; wrecker operator. KBR called this position a Senior Recovery Mechanic. Basically we recovered- and by recover- this could be a vehicle breakdown, an IED'd vehicle, accidents, etc. More or less anything on wheels that supported the mission in Iraq. This also meant moving and transporting other payloads. No matter what people's opinions are of Halliburton and KBR- they offered me a job and I gladly obliged. I had bills to pay like everyone else. Keep in mind there were quite a few large defense contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. And not one of us carried a weapon. 

When most Americans think of contractors, they think of bearded Blackwater types running around in sleeveless shirts brandishing AK-47's. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contractors were a varied and colorful bunch. We were truck drivers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and, every other administrative or blue collar job you can imagine. A large portion of us were Veterans that wanted to be a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in some form. Universally- we were there to get a paycheck. Was the pay good? Yes, I was paid handsomely. For the risk, it was worth it to me. But that risk was a double edge sword. To this day there are still contractors missing that were captured, maimed or left as vegetables for life due to the same injuries our Service Members receive. One IED blast could kill you, one bullet could kill you, one Rocket Propelled Grenade could kill you. Your own complacency could kill you. For the most part- our society doesn't care about contractors being maimed or killed- we were there for a paycheck according to most. I was well aware of the 2005 Preston Wheeler video that made national news. 

But the fact remains, contractors put their lives on the line so that your son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife can have everything from mail to ammunition delivered down range. 

Aftermath of KBR convoy Sept. 20, 2005 KBR/Halliburton convoy which Preston Wheeler was part of- as seen by US drones. 

The FNG (Fucking New Guy) author at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad in 2009.

I arrived "In Country" the first week of October 2009. From Baghdad I went north to Camp Anaconda in Balad for refresher training on recovery techniques before eventually venturing out to various other camps across Iraq. I immediately caught the "Iraqi Crud" as most people referred to it. Not sure if it was the amount of dust in the air or what- but it sucked. I drank NyQuil about as much as I drank water. As a newbie you are woefully unprepared for the immense size of the support infrastructure in place for Operation Iraqi Freedom. So many people back in the US wanted us to just pull out of Iraq and bring the Troops home. It just isn't that simple. By the time I had arrived in Iraq, the war had been waging on for 6 years. The operation had shifted from invasion to occupation. The amount of equipment and people on the ground was staggering. After a month or more of being at Anaconda I was sent to Camp Scania in Babylon Province. Scania was a very small convoy support center a little more than halfway up or down MSR (Main Supply Route) Tampa between Baghdad and what was alternately called Tallil, Adder or Ali Air Base outside of Nasiriyah. 

Entering Scania from the southern ECP (Entry Control Point) with an Army security escort.

Once in a great while Iraq showed us there was a small amount of beauty in a war torn country. Here the sun was breaking through some clouds. 

From Scania I bounced down to Camp Cedar II- the largest fuel farm in Iraq. The fuel came in from Kuwait, stored and then eventually distributed throughout the southern half of the country's bases and camps. Most of us referred to Cedar as the "Dust Bowl." There were no paved roads or amenities at this camp. But, they did have an outstanding chow hall. I enjoyed Cedar for the amount of recovery missions. It was here I was licensed to drive the HET-(Heavy Equipment Transport System) originally designed for the US Army to haul the venerable M1 Abrams tank. With KBR we used the HET to haul anything and everything; IED'd vehicles, tanks, MRAPs, loaded tanker trailers, drones, helicopters, shipping containers and almost any payload you could imagine. The HET handled them all with ease. I left Cedar for Scania after New Years 2010. It was good to be heading back north and see coworkers from Scania that I missed. In March I took 10 days R&R and went back to California. It was quite surreal being in the USA and around so many people after being in Iraq. Really, you didn't deal with what was going on "back in the world" outside of Iraq and the outside world didn't mean anything to me at that point. Surviving the highways of Iraq was paramount.

A thunder- and dust- storm rolls across Camp Cedar and Nasiriyah in November of 2009. 

KBR's Cedar II recovery department on the eastern edge of the camp. We had four HETs at one point along with four EMPL wreckers, probably one of the largest recovery departments for KBR in Iraq.

Our HET with an M88 tank recovery vehicle. (140,000 lb. payload) January 2010 in the Al Najaf desert.

The author using a 4 axle EMPL wrecker variant. Volvo chassis with the Austrian EMPL wrecker body. 

During the late spring of 2010 I moved down to Cedar II. Cedar was in the final months before closing permanently. There was a skeleton crew left in place as our department moved over to the larger Tallil base about 3 miles away. Tallil was almost like a different world with name brand fast food offerings, a large PX (think Best Buy), and other amenities. Cedar might as well have been the wild west. Missions ran hot and heavy with only four of us. The day shift was three guys and then night shift was one. The night shift person monitored the radio for incoming missions and then woke us up if anything came down. This typically meant that a mission would come in right after we left day shift or during the middle of the night. Being up for days on end was normal and we adjusted. All in all, life at Cedar was fun. We had plenty of missions to keep us busy and the time passed quickly. The time at Cedar was probably the best I had in Iraq. Working with such a small crew meant that we all got to know each other's strengths and work habits, if you will. We all did the same tasks every time we left the wire- which made everything run as smoothly as possible. Our escorts were a regular Army unit from Fort Carson, Colorado. At least they took the job seriously compared to the National Guard escorts we had out of Scania. The summer of 2010 was a hot one, like every summer in Iraq previous to it since the beginning of time. Temperatures reached over 130 degrees at times. Even at night getting up to take a leak from my tent, the temperature hovered just above the century mark. 

At the end of July I decided to leave Iraq and head home. KBR was changing its contract with the US government from LOGCAP III to LOGCAP IV (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program) or Task Orders. As with most large companies, changes were on the horizon. I had seen enough and saved enough money that I felt it was time to go home. This is just a small glimpse into what life was like working in Iraq, there have been a few books written and maybe even some documentary one day. 

Tent City III on Camp Cedar II. Home away from home. 

Leaving the south ECP of Tallil headed for MSR Tampa. 

Northbound on Tampa headed for Scania. 

Passing under ASR Miami. Route Miami led to camp Echo in Diwaniya. 

When the already horrible air conditioning dies in the HET, you kick out the emergency hatch.

Tying down equipment on the east side of Nasiriyah. Summer of 2010.

Ken Brower holding an MRAP spare tire- we kept one chained on the HET trailer deck just in case. The summer months meant flat tires for MRAPs on Tampa. All the money and technology into the equipment, but no place for a spare tire. Good job engineers. 

When the HET trailer was full and you got called to pick up more equipment- you improvised. Here a British security company's armored SUV is loaded onto the underreach of our EMPL wrecker. Hey, it worked. 

Sometimes we were tasked to help out the Iraqi's with their own mishaps. Here an Iraqi flatbed tractor trailer overturned on a bridge going south on Tampa. Three Iraqis were trapped under and inside the cab of the truck. There was no ambulance, no AAA coming. It was just us. 

The Euphrates River as viewed from so-called Italian Bridge going north on MSR Tampa.

A very lucky TCN (Third Country National) tanker driver. An EFP (explosively fueled projectile- a form of roadside bomb) hit the back of the sleeper on this truck causing shrapnel to penetrate the cargo tank filled with JP8 which did not ignite. But that was not always the case. Countless tankers were hit and burned up along every road in Iraq. 

Last day on Cedar II: From Left to Right: Jorge "Half Track" Ortiz, myself, Ken "Raven" Brower and Joe "Poor Dog" Emery, standing. 

One of the last fuel convoys to push out of Tallil northbound for Cedar and Scania. 

The EMPL wrecker- the workhorse of KBR recovery- on one of both of our last missions. The EMPLs were sent back to Kuwait as they were leased from the Kuwaiti government. Funny how that works.  

One of the final sunsets I saw in Iraq. 

Post Script- I worked with some great people that I maintain friendships with still to this day. Thanks, for the good times guys- CD, Taz, Snow Man, Half Track, Raven, 13, Poor Dog, JJ, Swamp Dawg, Too Tall, Daytona Dave, Kidd, Soda Pop, Turbo and others I forgot to mention. 

A funny moment caught by Snow Man at Anaconda early in our odyssey into Iraq.