"Johnny was soldier who lived right next to me. Young kid who came out to Iraq and had been there for almost a year. He had a few kills under his belt and was a wreck. He tried to act like he was fine with things, but would always end up breaking down mid-sentence and getting choked up. He wore nicotine patches, chewed the nicotine gum, smoked two packs a day, and always had a dip in his lip. He wanted complete annihilation of all the Iraqi people and to get back home to Disney World.
The list goes on and on. Afghanistan has a batch unmatched too... Characters you could not muster in your wildest dreams. The nuts and bolts of the machine are all loose and ready to drop at anytime. Some of the people out here are only one step away from the crazy fucks you see in a 7-11 talking to the hot dog machine. There are some sane people, but not many, and they are boring anyway..."
Interview with a Contractor Pt. I
I first met "Nero" at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in 1998. After a winter there, he flew to Indonesia for a vacation, where he narrowly escaped death in the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings. He has since done two contracts in Iraq, and is presently in Afghanistan.
Comparing the contracts, why do you prefer the combat zone to the Antarctic contract?
Even just applying for a job in the Middle East, the company gave me a list of the living conditions, such as:
You will be living in tent city in an 8-10 man GP Medium tent (like on the show M*A*S*H)
* If there is a Biological or Chemical attack and you are a casualty your body will be CREMATED and sent home.
I especially love the part where they describe the conditions as "like on the show M*A*S*H", because most of these clowns can only relate to TV for an idea of anything outside their worlds. They have to make parallels and visuals for these people who have never owned a passport, nor ever traveled, nor even read of other places or cultures.
"I am making six figures doing a job that is one of the easiest I have ever had."
Nevertheless, the main reason that the War Zones pull people in is the pay. Antarctica offered nickels and dimes compared to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Combat Pay is ridiculous. The other night I was out drinking and ran into this guy who makes $15,000 every two weeks setting up IT systems. Some are making $400,000 a year working security or supervision.
I am making six figures doing a job that is one of the easiest I have ever had. I had a supervisor in Camp Taji who couldn’t read or spell or speak or really do anything productive besides breathe and smoke cigarettes. She labeled our Supply Manual with "Suppy Manula" and she was making six figures.
Many think you insane for wanting to go to a combat zone. Besides the money, why are you there?
It does not take an insane person to want to go to the most fucked-up places on the planet because, to me, the most fucked-up places on the planet are in little neighborhoods, behind little fences, under little roofs. A little world that stretches as far as the little sedan will go. Working in the little office with the little lunch break and the little retirement fund as you lose a little more hair and a little more hope. The little dreams fade, the little bible makes little promises and then one day they might chisel some good words on the little tombstone. To me, that is hell on earth.
What are some experiences you have had over there?
* swam in Saddam’s swimming pools and relaxed in his palaces
* shook hands with Bush
* lifted body-filled caskets onto trucks with a forklift
* been in over 80 rocket and mortars attacks
* lived in a tent with over thirty insane truck drivers
* watched helicopters blow up insurgents
* shot big guns, rode in big tanks, flown in a big chopper as it attacked ground forces
* Pool Scene sang "Blue Suede Shoes" in the middle of Kabul in front of a bunch of locals
* said goodbye to somebody and ten minutes later they were dead
* lived with a porn-crazy Iraqi who is part of the new forming government
* seen Saddam go in and out of court
* watched bullets pound the wall directly above my head as I smoked a cigarette
* been introduced to local warlords
What characterizes the people who work combat zone contracts?
There are prior convicts that snuck through the filter. There are people who think that all Iraqi people are Terrorists, and that all of the Afghans are Taliban, and that anyone with a towel on their head is against the Freedoms of American, McDonalds, and American Idol. Uneducated, hypocritical Bee Bops that run to the dollar and then bitch as they stand around wearing safety gear. Also, most of the people out here believe in God. I’m a rare one because I don't close my eyes and give thanks for my dry meatloaf and wet lima beans.
Tell me about some of the characters you've met.
Moose Knuckles was a crazy Asian woman famous for her massive vaginal lips through her sweatpants. She snuck up on men as they pissed in the Porta-John. She opened the door violently to catch a glimpse of some pecker and would then run off howling. One night I walked into a party to find her blowing a lesbian who was wearing a motorized strap-on dildo. Then when she declared that she wanted the "real thing", a co-worker stepped up. Later that night she was overheard in the phone room sending love to her husband with penis breath, and the next morning she was back in Church eating the body of Christ.
"Several times I came into work in the morning and would find him passed out naked in the loft. The room would smell like hot lotion and booze."
Big Boy was a redneck from Texas who took pride in the fact that he had managed to bang the fattest and the ugliest women on base. He was known as "The Godfather" because he traded thousands of dollars worth of military lumber for whiskey, porn, and other unknown favors. He called blacks "niggers", Iraqis "sand niggers", and me a "wigger" when he one day heard me listen to rap. Big Boy was a sadist. The last day I saw Big Boy, he put his hand down his pants, grobbled his nuts, pulled out a slimy hand and smeared it across the face of some unsuspecting Marine. The Marine gagged twice and then barfed, causing Moose Knuckles to vomit as well. As the two victims held their stomach over their mess, Big Boy stood there laughing with tears in his eyes. That was the happiest I ever saw him.
Gonzo was my boss in Al Asad, and was the most fucked up of them all. Several times I came into work in the morning and would find him passed out naked in the loft. The room would smell like hot lotion and booze. He would wake-up and chase me around with no clothing until the Marines showed up. When the Marines came into the office he would climb up into the loft and spread his ass and say in a high pitched voice, "You love these New York Balls!" The Marines would shrug him off and call him a fag. He stole a Master Sergeant's bottle of booze one night and drank half of it, then pissed into the bottle to fill it back up and put it back in the Sergeant's room. The Sergeant drank it with a lady friend the next night and they both got ill. They never knew that they had drank Gonzo’s piss, and just thought they got a bad bottle of whiskey. Gonzo ended up falling apart and ran back to Texas where he married a lady who was twice his age. He still sends me e-mails with pictures of him with giant catfish or furniture he makes by hand.
Soft Hands' only previous employment before Iraq was as a drug dealer. He scared up a resume using experience he copied from a website. He got the nickname Soft Hands because he never worked and his hands felt like soft Chinese silk. A self-proclaimed "Asian Baller", he walked around the dirty warehouses in his baggie pants and extra-long white shirts sporting a $5,000 Jesus Piece Necklace and a doo-rag. He took pride in his ability to avoid working, and was constantly dodging the supervisors as he went from warehouse to warehouse trying to get poker games going. Soft Hands married a "stripper gone Army" back home, and had two kids, and was in Iraq trying to get enough money together to buy a few kilos of blow which he could then sell and triple his money.
Suicide 7 was an older black soldier I met in Taji. His wife committed suicide right before his deployment. She had asked him to go to the store to get some milk, and when he came back she was hanging from a rope in the garage. He had no more love for anything and fully admitted that he came back to Iraq with the sole purpose to kill and be killed. He already had a bullet hole in his neck and he bitched about how "that was the one": it missed his spine by half an inch. He wanted death.
Matt came out to Iraq on some unknown mission. Recently converted to Christianity, on the bus full of cussing and cursing he would hold his ears and rock back and forth as if Satan were trying to climb into his ears. His co-workers came to work one day to find that he hung a Napkin with Luke 12 over a drawing of a Chupracabra they had in the office. He said that it was a Satanic image. He grabbed me one day and prayed with me after I smashed my finger in a door, saying that God works in strange ways and that my finger would be proof. He also claimed to have come over to help the Iraqi people with their rise from the ashes. He fell down one day in front of a warehouse holding a bible and said that God had came and talked to him. When the Ambulance arrived, the paramedics asked what God had told him. Matt said, "Be Good. A bright light, and then God told me to be good, and I fell down." Matt was taken away and sent home when the Doctor deemed him insane.
Pedro worked for Triple Canopy (a security company that hired guys from Peru to protect gates and checkpoints within the Green Zone.) Pedro was a nice guy who always greeted everyone with a loud "hola!" or "Como Estas?" Often he was in gym wearing tight yellow spandex pants, and loved the song "Sex Bomb" by Tom Jones. One day he got into an argument with another employee. He pulled out his semi-automatic and blasted him apart. That day I went to the hospital to get some pain meds for my back pain. The hospital staff was running around asking for blood types; they did not get enough blood and the man died. Pedro was sent back to Peru to face death or life in prison.
"Some of the people out here are only one step away from the crazy fucks you see in a 7-11 talking to the hot dog machine."
Johnny was soldier who lived right next to me. Young kid who came out to Iraq and had been there for almost a year. He had a few kills under his belt and was a wreck. He tried to act like he was fine with things, but would always end up breaking down mid-sentence and getting choked up. He wore nicotine patches, chewed the nicotine gum, smoked two packs a day, and always had a dip in his lip. He wanted complete annihilation of all the Iraqi people and to get back home to Disney World.
The list goes on and on. Afghanistan has a batch unmatched too… Characters you could not muster in your wildest dreams. The nuts and bolts of the machine are all loose and ready to drop at anytime. Some of the people out here are only one step away from the crazy fucks you see in a 7-11 talking to the hot dog machine. There are some sane people, but not many, and they are boring anyway.
What have you learned by working in a combat zone?
I have gained more of an understanding of the people and the areas.
Al Asad (my first place of work in Iraq) has an Oasis on it that is considered the third Holiest spot in all of Islam: an oasis where Abraham supposedly drank and bathed. A few Marines swam in the Oasis and ended up having to go to the hospital with some horrible skin rash. This Oasis is now surrounded by a dump, and within the dump there is a fenced area that holds a grave site for an entire Iraqi soccer team that was executed by Saddam’s military after losing an important soccer match. Not far from Al Asad is an area that is supposedly the Garden of Eden. It too is now an area filled with mass graves.
The sight of an elderly goat herder looking up into the sky as an unmanned Predator Assault aircraft flies over and takes photos: brilliant! Watching Americans cover their ears as they walk past a Mosque blasting the words of Mohammed from a pair of blown out speakers: genius!
It is hypnotic to be part of this lunacy.
So many people know how to correct the world, and they feel like they contributed when the office pooled $2,000 for the Tsunami. They feel like they are humanitarians, and that their hearts are so big. Yet even the relief campaigns and the Red Cross are constantly embroiled in scams and rip-off plans. While twenty-one-year-old soldiers from Hanksack, Nebraska are dying. And children are losing their legs. So the real question is: when are we going to get some motherfucking Starbucks up in here?
About a week ago I had to go down to the gate to meet a truck, which was delayed. I walked outside the gate and was standing on the street corner waiting for the truck. A horde of hungry children, most not more than six, came running over. It was maybe 5 degrees, and some of these kids were barely dressed in rags, with frozen snot and tears of pain on their little faces. The living conditions of most of these Afghans is almost unfathomable. It made me sick, but there was not much I could do except toss them a few bucks and do my Elvis impersonation.
I finished my transaction at the gate and hurried back to the warmth of the office. As I sat at the desk, I looked up to the TV. The morning news show came on to bring America into the new day. The broadcasters promised in the next hour that they would give "Tips on making it through the Holiday Season Blues", "How to dress for success for cheap", a special on dog hotels, and then for the "Top News" of the day: the battle between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell.
How does status work in the combat zone contract? Do the soldiers look down at the contractors?
Between the contractors, the great divide is the money that is being made. People are funny about it: you ask someone how much they are making and they dance around it if they think you might be making more. The sad part is that the soldiers are on the low end of the pay scale. And this does cause friction between soldiers and contractors. In the same breath, however, many soldiers ask me over and over about contracting so that when they finish their tour of service they can come back over as a contractor. Most of the contractors have previous military experience, and most of the CEOs and Presidents of the contracting companies are actually retired officers who finished their time in the Army and decided to make some money off their connections and love for war.
Contracting allows the government to disperse funds in a cloaked fashion and to stand upon the shoulders of the corporate giants: Raytheon, Kellogg Brown and Root, Halliburton, Boeing, Blackwater, URS. And at the feet of these giants scurry the smaller contract rats that feast on all the meat and bones dropped from the giants’ table. History will one day catch up to the scams, the money shuffles, the seedy business. There is an insane amount of money over here.
It is sad, though, when you realize that a soldier going beyond the wire and making $25,000 a year and risking his life daily is being mocked by some 250-pound chick who is sitting behind a desk in a posh office eating Twinkies and making $130,000 a year. Is it right or is it wrong? I do not know. However, I have gotten to the point where I will turn to a soldier who is troubled by this and say, "Hey, no one twisted your arm and pushed you into the recruiting office and had you sign on with the Army. And if you want to act like a victim and point fingers, you had best realize that we all choose our own fates." They know this is true and back down. It is like driving down Rodeo Drive in a beat-up Datsun and bitching about rich people. Pointless. You would never get Joe BeeBow From Texas to come out to Iraq for $35,000 a year, it just would not happen.
Flag of Heroes
But at the bottom you have the TCNs, or Third Country Nationalists. The TCNs are the bottom of the totem pole and, in many areas, they are treated like slaves or "disposable humans". The TCNs come from all over the world: Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Philippines, India, Afghanistan, Kazahkstan, Sri Lanka, and are paid very low wages. Some get jobs that are not bad, like working as a Taco Bell employee, or being a swimming pool cleaner. But some are not so easy. For example, in the Green Zone they had teams of seven to ten Iraqi workers armed with brooms and a wheelbarrow sweeping a seven-mile stretch of highway in 130 degree heat. Sweeping a highway by hand? Down the highway about 40 yards sat a white pickup that housed a fat white man who was reading a newspaper and listening to Clint Black in the cooling comforts of an air conditioned cab. As I drove by he gave me the "Good ol' Boy" hat tip and two fingered wave. I ran into the Good Ol' Boy later and he would sling out some words, "Goddamn man. When those little Hajis finished sweeping that road, their little stinky asses got back in the truck with me and I damn near vomited cause those little faggots smelled so bad. Goddamn you would think the smelly little Sand Nigs would buy some Right Guard or wash der asses out."
The thing about the pay difference really comes to light when you consider the fact that the fatass who sits inside the truck and doesn't lift anything heavier than a pencil is making anywhere between $90,000 to $120,000 a year, whereas the TCN might be making $10 a day if he is lucky. So you can have 30 hard working TCNs that do not eat and are not insured and will work until their hands bleed for the price of one fully-insured lazy fatass.
The TCNs also allow for various shadowy services to be performed. For example, the military will use TCN trucks and truck drivers to bring supplies from Kuwait and Syria and various locations around Iraq. These drivers are paid pretty good money. However, these drivers are subjected to dangers and situations that would shock most. I would watch as the trucks would pull into the camp where these drivers and trucks were placed in a large holding yard where they were unable to leave. They had porta-johns set up and little more. They were not even given water or food, and they could not leave the barbwire fences until their truck was called and escorted to the area where their truck was unloaded. Pool GirlsThese trucks came in with rocks stuck in the window, bullet holes down the side, and other war scars. When we brought the trucks up to our yard to unload, the drivers would beg us for water which we would bring them. When these trucks were hit and blown up, the driver was shit out of luck. He lost his truck, his load, his money, and in many cases, his life. American convoys, on the other hand, are escorted by the US military and have a back-up plan when attacked. The TCNs were occasionally given some support, but usually they have no protection, and thus risk everything to bring the supplies to the various locations.
As with my previous statement, no one is holding a gun to their head to make them sweep highways with a broom or drive through bomb-riddled areas. They're there for the job and pay.
What about those inside the gate vs. those who go outside the gate?
"...they were told not to slow down for anyone or anything, and so ran over children."
The Outside/Inside the wire question is one that is also a touchy one. People who go outside the wire in Iraq have some pretty big nuts and I loved hearing the stories about the hell and chaos that lived outside the protective bases. A truck driver, for example, is a perfect story: you have a guy who came from the US and, in most cases, never even walked on foreign soil ever. KBR tossed out these chunk checks in front of these guys and now you have the classic scenario of the American Truck Driver on the Roads of Iraq. When I lived in a tent with 30 truck drivers I would sit down and listen to their "Outside the Wire" stories all night. They always had a steady supply of booze and hash. Movies could be made of their stories. They talked about some gruesome events in which they were told not to slow down for anyone or anything, and so ran over children. Or they would get stuck in the middle of RPG and gunfire and all they would do is "duck down and drive it like I stole it!" There were the nights when a convoy would roll in late and some burly man would come into the tent crying, "They Got Jimmy! He got blown up last night rolling down Hell's Pass. Motherfucking IED took out two trucks. God Damn!" The truck drivers would all get up with their peckers flopping out of their boxers and start sleepily pouring whiskey and talking about the good memories of Jimmy.
Tank and Razor Wire
Outside the wire is work that puts you on a level of bragging rights normally reserved for soldiers only. Inside the wire you might have to run from a rocket or mortar from time to time, but you are still a pussy when it comes to being in a war zone because, as described to me: "you aint shit until you are driving down the road and shit starts blowing the fuck up and 'ping ping ping' bullets are popping off the side of your truck. Then the soldiers start fucking shit up!" The same with the security contractors who would go outside the wire and experience these situations that made anything inside the wire seem like a Betty Crocker cooking show.
Now, up here in Afghanistan, going outside the wire is not as insane of an event. We go outside the wire and have actually been on fairly extensive road trips without a gun, without armor, and in a Nissan pick-up with nothing but a bottle of water and a windshield scraper. There have been many attacks on vehicles and convoys, but these attacks have been mostly on military vehicles and convoys. Some soldiers and security contractors up here look at us rolling outside the gate with no guns or armor and cringe, but I feel fine and I do not consider myself to be a manly man because of this. I went into the Red Zone once in Iraq, and I will say that I should have been wearing a diaper on that trip. That was fear. In Afghanistan I will drive to fetch a locksmith, or to eat a steak dinner, or to go drink a brew at the Russian bar.
How has your view of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan changed since you went over there? At one point you only knew what you read in the paper. What does the media omit?
There is plenty of news that is omitted by the media, and will be hidden from the public for years, or for lifetimes. I remember being in Al Asad and sitting around drinking with the military as they talked about their missions and killing Iraqis. They told stories about how they were ordered to shoot and kill anything that moved, and they had no qualms admitting that they had killed innocent people. They would shrug it off saying that it is War and that innocent people will die.
I remember one female soldier who said that every Iraqi and their child should be dragged outside and shot in the head; she had recently lost a friend to an IED attack. There were soldiers who admitted to stealing things from homes that they searched, and knew that many of the Iraqis they captured were probably innocent people who "were in the wrong place at the wrong time". I remember hearing all of these stories right when I got to Iraq and thinking that plenty of this was hidden from the media. Months later, however, I saw that the Marines who killed innocent people in Anbar Province were plastered all over the media and that these stories were actually coming out. But there are plenty of these stories that will never come out.
I guess that's the nature of the beast.