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Commentary | PATT MORRISON

Pricey War for Grunts' Families

August 25, 2004|PATT MORRISON

The price of war -- the White House budget office figures that for the Iraq conflict it's $175 billion and counting. But it's the little numbers right here in California that really get to Mike Ryan.

Ryan is a respiratory therapist who lives in West L.A., and he didn't even own a cellphone until his son Rick went to Iraq in March as an Army combat medic. Enter the phone bills: $120, $140 a month, a hundred or two more put on the plastic to "charge up" Rick's phone card. A single call just after Rick landed in Iraq ran $130.

Then there's the food and the cost of sending it. Rick's not keen on Army cooking (who is?). "We brought him up eating well," said his father. So twice a month, a package leaves the Ryan house for Iraq -- Trader Joe's fruits and nuts, protein drinks, canned salmon. Sixty or 70 bucks' worth of food, times two, plus $25 for postage, times two again. Almost $200 a month more.

As the war warmed up, stories abounded about how much it was costing military families to keep reaching out to touch their loved ones. There were tales of disconnection notices because of unpaid bills. A Massachusetts soldier racked up a $7,600 phone bill; his entire savings account paid just half. Arizona Sen. John McCain sponsored a bill that gives those in combat access to a free monthly calling card worth $40. Which goes only so far, as Ryan can attest. Last October, in Colorado, a soldier's wife was applauded when she stood up at a town hall meeting and asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the ruinous cost of phone calls. "As enlisted soldiers," she said, "we can't afford this."

For a while, Mike Ryan worked overtime to pay his overseas phone bills. Then, his cousin, an Army Reserve coordinator, put him on to a military website selling phone cards.

It's run by the same people who've been selling goods to the military for 109 years, through PXs and now websites. They buy phone cards wholesale from AT&T, which holds the contract, and sell them to soldiers with a "small margin to cover costs and overhead."

It works out to $39 for 139 minutes, which has helped, said Ryan. But for families that don't know about the website and may be calling soldiers via other means (different companies' phone cards, for example), the phone bills are likely to be much bigger.

Not that the Mike Ryans of the world begrudge their kids the cost. "I would have paid 10 bucks a minute," he said.

But those bills, those relentless bills, and for families living on a military paycheck of $2,000 or $3,000 a month. The soldiers weren't drafted, of course; they signed up by choice, and they and their families will make do.

With his own hard bills to pay, Mike Ryan can't help but think about that other figure, the one in the billions of dollars. It makes him wonder about the profits being made on phone cards or on feeding his son in Iraq.

It leaves him thinking it's soldiers' families that are paying to subsidize this war, a couple of hundred dollars and a care package at a time: "When you think of Halliburton and Bechtel and how they've pretty much opened [Iraq] up to free enterprise .... [Can] American companies come in there and profiteer off the soldiers?"

Of course, the line between legitimate profits and profiteering in wartime is always a flimsy and flexible one, and accusations surface in every war. The man who wrote the book on it is Stuart Brandes, author of the 1997 "Warhogs: A History of War Profits in America."

"In conflict of this kind," said Brandes, "there's great difficulty in evening out the sacrifices made by the warriors, and those who are the suppliers."

Profiteering is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, especially, Brandes said, given the "unusual economic circumstances that develop during wartime [when] the inequities in compensation are magnified by the awful sacrifice that a soldier would make."

Today there's Halliburton, the uber-contractor in Iraq, in line to get paid a little more than $18 billion to feed and house troops and to restore the Iraqi oil infrastructure.

And there are accusations that can't help but hit home on the home front: like reports that Halliburton may have billed $186 million for troop meals that were never served. Or that it is paying $7,500 a month to rent a truck that you or I could rent for $2,000, and $7.50 each for monogrammed bath towels. (Monogrammed with what? Dollar signs?)

It costs a lot to go to war, but it surely would help the warriors and their families to know that the billions are being spent as carefully as their $39 for a phone card.

Thirty-eight years ago this very month, a young congressman told his colleagues that something was seriously amiss about huge wartime contracts awarded to a company with a big friend in a high place.

"The potential for waste and profiteering under such a contract is substantial," he warned. It is "beyond me," he went on, why the contract "has not been and is not now being adequately audited."

The war was Vietnam. The company was Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton that is now known as KBR. The big friend in a high place was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. And the impassioned young congressman was Donald Rumsfeld.

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Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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