Global Policy Forum

You Don't Have to be Poor


By Andrew Buncombe

June 15, 2004

Kellogg, Brown and Root is finding no shortage of Americans who want employment in Iraq, despite the heat, dust and danger of death. They could earn up to $100,000 in a year.

Wilson Menefee's face was beaming with the broadest of smiles. Minutes earlier he had been offered a job as a forklift operator paying five times his current wage. The year-long contract would allow him to pay off any debts, help out his mother and put aside some money for his two sons. The only possible drawback was the job's location: Iraq. "I'm not bothered [by the danger] - nothing bothers me," said Mr Menefee, grinning. "The chances of something happening are the same here. I could step out of the door and get hit by a bus."

Mr Menefee, 50, is one of hundreds of Americans eagerly applying every week for what must be some of the most dangerous jobs in the world - supporting US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of these people are not careless thrill-seekers, nor are they attracted simply by the large wages that these jobs offer.

Rather they are lured by what they and their families could do with that money and how they could use it to clear mounting debts, help pay for their children's education and turn their lives around. They know the dangers that come with the prospect of making these big wages - dozens of US-employed contractors have been killed in Iraq and two are still missing. Yesterday, five foreign contractors, among them two private security specialists, were killed in Iraq, where they were working on the country's electricity infrastructure.

Yet with decent jobs scarce and with unemployment in the US - currently 5.6 per cent - at one of the highest levels in years, every one of those applying for jobs is making a calculated gamble they will not be among the statistics. For the vast majority, the road to Iraq starts at the sort of recruitment fair in Houston, Texas, where Mr Menefee was provisionally offered a position on Saturday morning.

Organised by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of the oil services giant, Halliburton, these fairs are held across America to recruit people to support the 145,000 US troops in Iraq - cooking their meals, doing their laundry, driving supplies and a thousand other such jobs. KBR employs about 24,000 people in Iraq for these tasks, 11,000 of them from the US. The majority of KBR's US recruits come from the southern states, and the company makes a point of holding job fairs where there is known to be large military, or former military, population. In many cases, new recruits get just one week of training.

By 8am on Saturday, 100 people, most of the them men, some wearing suits, others in jeans and workshirts and baseball caps, had lined up on the fourth floor of a Houston hotel and were filling in forms and handing them to the KBR recruiters. In a nearby ballroom, stirring music was being piped from speakers while images of KBR's tent camps in Iraq were projected onto a large screen. "I can tell you up front this is not for everybody. We lose between 30 and 50 per cent of the people to who we make a contingent offer," said Chris Ward, a KBR recruiter who gave a candid, hour-long introduction as to what any new employees could expect if selected. "How many people have been to the Middle East? It's not like Houston. It's not like west Texas." The heat and the dust would be their worst enemies, Mr Ward explained, as the screen behind him showed images of snakes and spiders, some the size of a human hand.

"I have heard of 150, 155 degrees in summer [68C]. It's hot," he said. "And if there are dust storms, it's very dusty. Everything is tanned. We have lost 39 [people], tragically. We'd rather it was zero. Will there be more? Probably. It's a war zone." Aside from the heat and the dust and the danger of being killed or kidnapped, KBR employees are expected to endure an exhausting schedule, working seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day, with time off every four months. "We eat, we sleep and we work," he said.

"That's it." Mr Ward waited until the end of his presentation before getting to the benefits of enduring all this misery. Over a year, depending on the position, contractors could earn up to $100,000 (£55,000), $80,000 of it tax free. KBR would also offer medical coverage, insurance worth $25,000 and 10 days off every four months, along with $860 in travel expenses. Sitting towards the back of the audience, Robert Nowlin, 53, listened transfixed to the presentation. A carpenter by trade, he had been working in computer sales but he was struggling to get by. "I'm not making much money at the moment to help my family," admitted Mr Nowlin. "This would be a great chance to start again. My wife makes double what I do. It's difficult. Like I said there are a lot of reasons I'd like to go [to Iraq]. I could help my daughter through college. That was the one thing I did not plan for. She has just graduated from high school." It was not to be Mr Nowlin's day. The recruiters did not call his name. He left the hotel downcast, but saying he would try again.

Jackie Ford fared somewhat better. The 48-year-old had a job with a Houston company as a construction inspector but work had been slow in recent months. He had come with his son, Michael, 26, who was also applying for a job. The recruiters had told him to fill in some more forms, explained Mr Ford, but before he could accept any offer he would have to discuss the matter with his wife, Terry. "I just called her to tell her what they told me," he said. "She wants to know the details. She encouraged me to come and find out. Then we will make a collective decision." And how did Mr Ford feel about letting his son go to Iraq? "I would let him make his own decision."

Despite the obvious dangers - about which KBR was very upfront - the company says it is having little trouble persuading people to go. Even to those who know from experience how badly wrong things can go, this comes as little surprise. Thomas Hamill, a farmer from Mississippi, was kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq on 9 April while working as a truck driver. He escaped on 2 May and was picked up by American troops. He said he would consider returning. Speaking from his home in Macon, he said Thank you: "I'm not surprised that [there are people] willing to go. It's just ordinary people getting up and doing what needs to be done."

From Mr Menefee's perspective, his contract could not start soon enough. His job as a forklift operator at a Houston factory was paying $1,200 a month. In Iraq, the recruiters had told him, he could be making $6,500. "I'm a non-stop machine," he said. "This is an opportunity to do something I want to do. They could ship me out tomorrow if they wanted to."

Tempted by Opportunities in a Dangerous Land

Thomas Hamill

Mr Hamill, 43, from Macon, Mississippi, did not attend Saturday's job fair but he is one of the KBR's most famous contractors. Mr Hamill was driving a fuel truck on 9 April when he was captured by Iraqi insurgents who killed four of his colleagues. He spent 23 days in captivity before he escaped and was rescued by US troops. Every day he would recite the 23rd Psalm - "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil."

Speaking by telephone, Mr Hamill, explained that he had gone to Iraq to try and save his family farm, which was facing bankruptcy after three generations. "It was a chance to pay off my debts quickly, otherwise it would have taken me years," he said. Mr Hamill, a devout Christian, said: "I think God was preparing me for this all my life. This was always going to happen." Though Mr Hamill spent eight months away from his family, he said he would consider returning to Iraq if his security could be guaranteed. "Now I think I am a marked man and I might be a risk to others. I have not talked to KBR about it." Mr Hamill's arm was injured in the attack on his convoy and his captors carried out rudimentary surgery on him without any anaesthetic.

During his time in captivity, Mr Hamill heard a US helicopter, prised open the door of the hut in which he was being held and ran out waving his shirt, but American patrol did not spot him. "When I escaped that first time and had to go and put myself back in the building... I told myself the Lord doesn't want the soldiers or anyone else to break in and find me," he told the Baptist Press. "He wants me ... to get out and go to them. That's exactly what happened." Back home with his wife Kellie, Mr Hamill remains positive about what happened. "We're just country people. I can be gone for months and come back in and it's just like I just walked from the day before. That's pretty much how we are."

Warren Blades

Mr Blades, 55, retired in January after a career working for the oil giant Exxon in Louisiana. He had travelled to Texas hoping that, with his experience, he would be snapped up by KBR. "I was looking for something else to do," he said. Mr Blades said he was surprised how spartan the accommodation looked on the slides KBR showed and he was not expecting that he would have to live in a tent. Married with three children, Mr Blades said his family had been concerned about him going to Iraq but that he had come to find out what might be available for him. Mr Blades was not offered a position on Saturday. "I am not sure why my qualifications were not enough," he said.

Mark Emery

Mr Emery, 34, said he would have to consider any offer he was made by KBR. He was working for a Houston company that made filters and said he was ready for a new challenge and the chance to make some better money. "I am not worried about the danger. I have a friend who has been out there and he says that if you stick on the bases, things are OK," he said. "I figure that maybe I could spend a year or so there. It would be a little more money, a chance just to get a head start." Mr Emery attended the job fair with his girlfriend, Jennifer Nigbur, 22. But she was not delighted by the prospect of Mr Emery going to Iraq. "I've been through this before with someone else," she said.

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