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The Trucker's War: On the Road in Iraq

KBR erected a memorial wall to fallen truckers inside Camp Anaconda in central Iraq.
KBR erected a memorial wall to fallen truckers inside Camp Anaconda in central Iraq.

Private contractors are America's shadow army in Iraq; essential, but often forgotten. Among the most vulnerable: Civilian truck drivers who navigate the most dangerous roads in the world, delivering everything from meals to mail to bullets to portable toilets.

The truckers face ambushes unarmed. At least 63 of them have died. Twenty-four were Americans, the rest were third-country nationals. Some say their employer, KBR, should have done more to protect them.

Another Day on the Job

Imagine yourself in the cab of a truck bouncing along a highway in Iraq. Palm trees and dun-colored houses whiz past. Children run out to beg. Men in white dishdashas and red headscarves with hostile faces watch you pass.

You swerve to miss a donkey carcass; it could be booby-trapped. Suddenly, a familiar sound: the pop, pop, pop of machine-gun fire. You hope the soldiers in the Humvees escorting your convoy shoot back.

You pray the flak vest you're wearing stops an AK round, because the truck you're driving is not armored.

Above all, you tell yourself, "Don't stop." There are bad guys out there who want to pull you out and cut your head off.

Then suddenly there's a sharp concussion, black smoke, chaos. An IED on the left side of the road. You say a quick prayer and you move on.

It's another day on the job of a truck driver for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It's such an unusual type of job," says driver Scott Hodges. "For the people who do it and are successful at it, there's a real kinship, there's a real brotherhood there."

Michael Vick says young Iraqi rock throwers "can hit inside your cab while you're moving at 50 miles an hour."

Billy Garsee has no plans to return to Iraq.

"Every convoy we'd pull out on would get rocked or shot at or something. There was always some kind of conflict going on on every convoy," Garsee says. "The good Lord saw fit to bring me home alive the first time. I'm not gonna contest him a second time."

The Lure of Big Money

Thirty former drivers and a few current drivers were interviewed for this story. Each of them has a nickname: Rubber Duck, Smoky Joe, Poncho, Pops, Boozer, Scout, Big Money, Tanker, Wolf Pack and Rawhide.

All of them worked for the war's biggest contractor -- Houston-based KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.

For many of them, the lure of good pay was enough to persuade them to sign up. Austin Dunn was a 55-year-old professional truck driver, down on his luck in Houston.

"The [KBR] recruiter says, 'How would you like to make $100,000 a year?' Well, I [had] just lost my job here in Houston and my wife and I were struggling, we were living in a little one-bedroom apartment. Didn't have anything. And soon as he said that $100,000, I'm just like the other guys -- set the hook."

But not all of them had dollar signs in their eyes, says Jim Bob Murray, a former rodeo cowboy and driver in Luling, Texas.

"I went over there to help the troops, it wasn't about the money. I got too old to enlist and I wanted to be able to... show my patriotism, or be able to do something for them."

KBR has 700 trucks rolling across Iraqi on any given day. The need for drivers is constant because the turnover is so high. Despite a no-nonsense orientation in Houston, some drivers still didn't understand what they're getting themselves into, says former convoy commander Roger Dixon, of Stamford, Texas.

"I'd see some guys who'd come over thinking that ... it's just fun and games and they'd go on one mission and that'd be the last mission," Dixon says. "They'd come back home. And then some people would get off the airplane and see how hot it was and go right back. 135 in the shade. It was real hot."

Few drivers complain about their accommodations. For instance, Camp Anaconda, 42 miles north of Baghdad, has air-conditioned rooms, a swimming pool and a movie theater, and meal choices from pizza to cheeseburgers.

Lack of Armor

The biggest complaint is when they go "outside the wire" -- when they leave camp on a convoy mission.

"The armor in the KBR trucks was not adequate to protect us at all," says Terry Steward, of Weiser, Idaho. He almost died from gunshot wounds last year when his convoy drove into an ambush. Three drivers were killed. Steward believes most of the bloodshed could have been avoided that day if the trucks had been bulletproofed.

"The issue of inadequate armor had been brought up by me and other people to KBR," Steward says. "We needed something done."

Scores of drivers told NPR they frequently raised the issue of inadequate armor to KBR managers.

After one soldier pointedly questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld two years ago about similar vulnerabilities with Humvees, the military moved aggressively to armor its vehicles.

KBR trucks have lagged far behind, says Mark Overcash, who drove flatbeds for the company until last September.

"If you didn't have armor on a truck, you'd try to scrounge you up something to put in there, get some more metal between you and your outside," Overcash says. "And you just had to scavenge it because… for some reason, KBR didn't think it was necessary for everybody to have armor."

KBR has tried various fixes. It purchased Kevlar shields that slip into door panels, retrofitted windshields with shatter-proof Mylar and outfitted truck cabs with ballistic blankets -- which may or may not slow down bullets and shrapnel. But not all trucks have these features.

The company, in an e-mail response to NPR, explained that it continues to search for solutions, but the civilian Mercedes and Volvo trucks it purchases for Iraq are not easily armored.

"It has proven difficult and extremely time-intensive to locate and procure the equipment needed to retrofit the cabs with up-armor protection," the company said.

Austin Dunn said the truckers might have been more understanding if it weren't for the fleets of luxury SUVs that KBR brought in for other employees.

"What in the world do you need a $55,000 Ford Excursion for one guy to drive from his office to the PX to the chow hall back to his office?" Dunn says. "It's just amazing the kind of money they were wasting. They could have been using that money to armor-plate our trucks."

Contractors 'Not Appreciated'

After 15 months driving a truck for KBR, Jim Bob Murray returned from Iraq. He says too many of his friends were getting killed, and he didn't like the way the company treated the drivers.

"The nickname we had for KBR was Kill 'em, Bag 'em and Replace 'em.

KBR said in its statement that "all personnel are treated with dignity and respect, and they may return home if they become uncomfortable with the work they're performing."

The company has erected a memorial wall to fallen truckers inside the KBR facility at Camp Anaconda. One of the names inscribed on that wall is Sasha Grenner-Case, 32, a Florida-based trucker who was killed by insurgents in the Sept. 20 ambush. His widow, Karen, lives in a mobile home park in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

She says when tells people her husband was killed in Iraq, they assume he was a soldier. Contractors are "not appreciated because nobody knows about 'em. And it's sad that the United States doesn't even realize all these guys are in such terrible danger."

The second part of this report will air on Friday's Morning Edition.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.