CONWAY, S.C. — At 8 o'clock on a recent morning, firefighter Darrin Grant finished his last shift at Station 18, collected his county paycheck and walked out to make more money than most people in the remote Carolina "Low Country" would ever dream possible.
In a few days, he will take up his new post as a firefighter on a U.S. military base somewhere in Iraq. His current $1,600 monthly take-home pay will balloon to $9,000. In one year, he and his wife can break free of the financial pressures that have been dogging them -- an endless struggle to pay too many bills with too little money.
But to do that, and maybe save enough to buy their first house, Grant had to make a choice he never thought he'd face -- risking his life in a dangerous but lucrative war zone instead of slowly losing his shirt in a backwater economy. He lies awake at night wondering how, at 39, his options came to this.
"My family will make out much better while I am doing this. In one way, this is a dream come true" said Grant, a three-year Horry County Fire/Rescue veteran with three children under the age of eight. "But it is also going to be very hard for the next 365 days."
In this seemingly tranquil region of small towns, farms and sandy woodlands that twines around the beach resorts of the Carolina coast, Darrin Grant is not alone. A wave of area firefighters and police officers has jumped at the chance for civilian jobs in Iraq.
The result has been a unique set of pressures and problems in communities that are not used to facing such challenges -- communities, in fact, that Grant and others sought out precisely because they seemed so far from the turmoil of the larger world.
Two other Horry County firefighters resigned in a single week. The county police force has lost seven members since last winter. Six more have resigned from agencies in neighboring counties. For every person who has signed up for Iraq, at least two more are considering it, those in the department say.
And for most of them, the reasons are much the same. Outwardly living a modest version of the American dream -- steady jobs, decent housing, food, clothes, toys for their young kids -- they have in fact been locked in a grinding effort just to stay afloat.
"To be on time with my bills, it's like a fairy tale," muses Holly Udy, whose firefighter husband, Joe, is already in Iraq. He had been working two jobs -- firefighter and part-time maintenance worker. It hadn't been enough.
Now, with unimagined dangers suddenly close at hand, these families find themselves isolated and unprepared.
Military families understand from the beginning that death or injury come with the job. The Armed Forces have established support systems for families -- counseling, child care assistance and financial advice.
None of that is true here. Darrin Grant has arranged to pay $100 a month so his wife won't have to haul the trash to the dump. Joe Udy read aloud his freshly penned will before he left so his dyslexic wife wouldn't have to decipher it alone.
Most of the time, the wives whose husbands have gone cope with their fear by avoiding the subject. When they think about the what-ifs, they break down. "Sometimes I think, if I hadn't gotten sick, would he have had to go?" Holly Udy, who recently underwent surgery, mused from her mother's living room in Surfside Beach, a modest community near the ocean. "I cannot imagine life without Joe."
As she connected with the danger, her eyes filled up . A moment later she was composed again and pragmatic. "The sun comes up, the bills come due and you have to do the right thing."
Everyone knows the risks, of course. Since spring of 2003, more than 90 contract workers have been killed and scores more wounded in Iraq by roadside bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other attacks by insurgents.
Now, the approximately 50,000 contract workers employed by U.S. companies have become targets of choice for kidnappers who are using made-for-television beheadings as the newest weapon in their campaign to drive out Americans.
As the Grants and many of the others see it, these risks are something they have to accept.
"The schools are great. It's a great area to raise a family. But to survive on the money they pay here, it's ridiculous," Grant said.
Here, as in much of the Deep South, wages are among the lowest in the nation. A firefighter or police officer in Horry County starts at around $25,000 a year, with raises that come slow and small. Most of the men moonlight as grass-cutters or Wal-Mart clerks or by parking cars at the ritzy beach resorts to make ends meet. On his days off, Grant drove a limousine.
Contract work in Iraq not only pays wildly more, but as much as $80,000 can be tax free. Fat bonuses are offered for extending a tour.