Working in Iraq is like playing the lottery -- only in this case, you pray that your number does not come up. If it does, the results are often devastating. Eugene Armstrong, 52, a civil engineer, kidnapped and beheaded. Todd Venette, 35, a former Marine working as a security guard, killed in a car bombing attack. Anthony Stramiello, Jr., 61, a carpentry foreman, murdered when a suicide bomber blew up a mess tent full of U.S. soldiers.
According to the Web site www.icasualties.org, more than 200 foreign private contractors have lost their lives in Iraq in the past two years. There can be no one who has watched the news in recent months who does not know that Iraq is an extremely hairy place -- particularly for anyone even remotely connected with the U.S. reconstruction efforts.
Despite Pentagon claims that we are "winning" the war, Iraq looks like a chapter from Armageddon. More than 400 people have been killed in the last two weeks in almost daily bombings.
Even so, the potential for making big money makes some willing to put their lives on the line for fat salaries up to five times more than comparable jobs in the states.
Halliburton, the biggest civilian contractor operating in Iraq, has 500 openings listed on its Web site for everything from rec assistants for the U.S. military's Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers -- to security guards with Special Ops backgrounds. The one drawback is the very real possibility that you won't be around to spend your earnings.
The abduction of Douglas Wood, a 63-year-old Australian engineer who lives in Alamo, is a terrifying reminder of the great risk. Wood was seen last Friday in a video made by his captors, eyes blackened and pleading for his life. Automatic weapons were pointed at his head.
The kidnappers said that if Australia did not immediately begin withdrawing its troops within three days Wood would be executed.
Wood's frantic relatives have issued desperate appeals to the kidnappers. They have promised to make a "substantial donation" to show their solidarity with the Iraqi people. If Wood is released, they have promised that he will close down his construction business and leave Iraq for good. Meanwhile, the head of Australia's Sunni Muslim community went to Iraq in the hopes of negotiating Wood's release. He said the deadline had been extended, which is some cause for optimism.
The problem is, no one knows who the kidnappers are or what they really want. "Insurgents" is a catch-all phrase for any Muslim with a gun or a bomb. Kidnappers motivated by fanatical religious goals won't negotiate, no matter what. Others are in it for the money and are more likely to deal.
This time last year, Wood seemed almost cavalier about the dangers of working in Iraq. "I've heard the sound of mortars dropping nearby, rifle fire in the streets, but this is like occasional background music," Wood said in an interview with The Observer in London. "There are probably scarier places in downtown Washington D.C."
There are scary places in D.C., but not this scary. We pray for Wood's safe return to his family and hope that his abduction will serve as a warning to others that sometimes, the money just isn't worth it.