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In Iraq, 'Road Warriors' Deliver the Goods

The lure of a big payday keeps civilian truckers going despite bombs, bullets and ambushes.

August 29, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BALAD, Iraq — It is 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Melvin Winter is going to war.

The 44-year-old truck driver from Greenville, Texas, turns the key of his white Mercedes flatbed truck, revs the engine and rolls up to a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. On this side is Camp Anaconda, a U.S. supply base. On the other is Iraq.

"Put your game face on," he says, strapping on a helmet and bulletproof vest as the call to roll out crackles across the radio. "It's time to put on the gloves."

Over the next three hours, Winter and the other truck drivers in his convoy will rumble through a landscape of violence and fear. They will take fire from Iraqi insurgents. They will pass through blinding black smoke from roadside fires. They will be stuck for tense moments on a stretch of highway famous for its ambushes.

It will, in sum, be a normal day for the truck drivers of KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co. that finds itself on the front lines of the deadliest war the United States has fought since Vietnam.

Halliburton allowed a reporter to accompany a convoy on a typical run, providing the first glimpse of the hazards faced by its drivers, many of them blue-collar workers seeking to get ahead. Certain security measures were not allowed to be disclosed.

As the Defense Department has contracted out more and more jobs traditionally done by military personnel in order to focus its mission and save money, private companies increasingly have been plunged into the war.

None is more prominent than Halliburton, an oil services company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2001, the company won a multibillion-dollar contract to supply all the logistical needs of the U.S. military in Iraq.

As a result, it is difficult to overstate Halliburton's importance to the war effort. Halliburton delivers soldiers' mail and washes their clothes. It provides them with food, toilets and bunks. It ships fuel for tanks and builds conference rooms for generals.

The company and its workers have benefited, but at a cost. In Congress and the presidential campaign, Halliburton has come under attack because of its links to Cheney and Pentagon audit findings that it has overcharged the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

Workers have paid with their lives. Of Halliburton's 30,000 employees in Iraq -- including more than 7,000 U.S. citizens and thousands of subcontractors from other countries -- 45 have been killed since the company established operations in March 2003.

No job is more dangerous than driving a truck. Of the 18 U.S. citizens killed in Iraq while working for Halliburton, 11 were truckers.

The drivers' existence here is a real-life version of "The Road Warrior," the Mel Gibson film in which a group of settlers in post-nuclear-war Australia tries to steer a truck through a desert filled with bad guys.

Recently, Halliburton's convoys have been taking hits every day on some routes. The truckers endure sniper fire, car bombs, roadside explosions and rocket-propelled grenades. Iraqi insurgents mount ambushes to pick off trucks from behind. They throw bricks and drop 8-foot-long steel pipes from overpasses into the cabs.

In the most horrific incident, in April, insurgents blocked a convoy near the Abu Ghraib prison. Four Halliburton truckers were killed, two remain missing, and another, Thomas Hamill, escaped from his captors.

For an insurgency vastly outmatched by the U.S. military in firepower, shutting down supply lines has become an efficient alternative to direct confrontation.

"The front lines are no longer what we think of," says Capt. Catherine Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Army's 13th Corps Support Command, which oversees Iraq's main logistics center. "The front lines are the convoys."

There is not much the drivers can do. The Army provides security escorts, but the insurgents plant bombs along the relatively few cross-country routes the trucks must travel. Then they simply wait for a convoy, which sometimes pass as frequently as every half-hour on well-traveled routes.

Not all of Halliburton's trucks are bulletproofed. Their windshields shatter. Bullets pierce the cab.

Mostly, the drivers punch the gas, and hope for the best.

"Sometimes it's so calm and peaceful out there. Other times, you roll out the gate and think: I hope I make it, I hope I make it," says Lou Hadley, who has been driving trucks here for nearly a year.

On this run, the convoy is carrying a load of tires, engine parts and other supplies into Baghdad from Camp Anaconda, a sprawling base about 60 miles to the north.

The drivers are typical: experienced truckers from the U.S. Military security prevents Halliburton from hiring Iraqis to deliver supplies to American troops.

As they wait for orders in the camp's dusty parking lot, they stand out from the camouflaged soldiers, a motley crew from heartland America in the midst of the Iraqi desert. They wear tattoos and cowboy hats, big brass belt buckles and Bowie knives, blue jeans and sweat-soaked shirts.

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