TAMPA - Silver-bearded Vietnam veteran Pete Howatt, more drill sergeant than job recruiter, slowly paced the dimly lit Crowne Plaza hotel ballroom and addressed 36 men and four women seeking a career change Thursday.
Nobody shifted in their armless chairs when Howatt spoke.
They hung on his soft, deep voice that delivered a strong opening message in a deliberate style.
``This job is not for everyone. ... We have lost 68 men in 2 1/2 years. ... It is work in a combat zone.''
His trenchant words began a job-recruitment seminar for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Inc. that employs more than 50,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Plumbers, electricians, truck drivers, food-service workers, logistics specialists and other professionals work 12-hour days providing support services to American troops.
It's hard, dangerous work. But the pay is high. And that's the allure.
A KBR food-service worker in Iraq or Afghanistan earns $70,000 or more per year, tax free. Truck drivers, the most dangerous positions, can exceed $100,000 annually. Power plant workers and welders hit six figures, too.
Workers' housing and meals are free, medical insurance is inexpensive and there are few places to blow a paycheck.
A year on the job can change the average person's financial life.
That's why Troy Shannon, of Brandon, applied and interviewed for a position as a power plant worker Thursday.
The 42-year-old, grizzled Navy veteran wants an easier life. His goal is to work a year or two in Iraq and return and buy a sport fishing boat.
He fantasizes a sunny life as a charter boat captain on the Gulf of Mexico.
``I've been a blue-collar worker all my life, and what has it got me?'' Shannon said. ``Between child support, going between jobs, and paying $3 per gallon now for gasoline, it comes to nothing for me at the end of every year.
``This job would let me come home to one paycheck. That's all I need; one big paycheck.''
Am entrepreneurial spirit also motivated Dwight Davis, 43, who flew to Tampa from Atlanta with hopes of scoring a logistics position.
Davis, an Army veteran, is the proud founder of Mammie's Boy BBQ Soul, a new catering company named after his mother that specializes in African-American cuisine.
His earnings overseas would be funneled into the business.
``This will facilitate my self- employment,'' Davis said.
About half of KBR's employees overseas are veterans, such as Shannon and Davis.
``They are not as intimidated by the working conditions,'' Howatt said.
Grim Sales Pitch
After opening the seminar talking about the dangers of a combat zone, Howatt started a 10-minute video presentation of employee life in Iraq and Afghanistan working alongside U.S. soldiers.
Cue the patriotic music? Hardly.
The slide show was set to the sounds of chilling timpani, adagio orchestral music and wordless chants befitting a horror movie, as images of smiling workers in Iraq flashed across the screen.
KBR, which has a 10-year employment contract with the federal government, did not try to paint a pretty picture. The slides showed workers' tight living quarters in tents and in rows of mobile homes called ``containers.''
The next slide show, narrated by Howatt, featured what he called ``our pets in the desert:'' the scorpions, camel spiders and venomous snakes.
``It surprised me that they didn't lie about life over there,'' said Gary Cruz, Jr., 24. ``From what I know from a friend who works there, they told the whole truth today.''
Cruz, a Tampa construction worker with no military experience, was one of about 10 attendees granted an on-site interview.
He left ready to take a food- service job in Iraq. He wants his wife and twin 2-year-old daughters to be able to afford an apartment better than the one they share now near the intersection of Nebraska and Fletcher avenues.
``This is what's best for us in the long run. I want to pay debt, buy a house and get to a better neighborhood,'' Cruz said.
To work overseas for KBR, workers must pass a series of medical tests and background checks. Once there, they work 12 hours per day, seven days a week, for four months. A 10- day leave is granted after each four-month period.
``Time flies when you're working that hard,'' Howatt said.
Workers can quit at any time without penalty, but working less than 330 days in a 365-day period eliminates the tax-free status of their income, a major benefit of the overseas battlefield job.
For a few applicants Thursday, money was not their primary motivation.
``I look at it as my life's last adventure,'' said Charles Rogers, 44, of Brandon.
The chiseled former Marine turned private investigator wants to be a truck driver in Iraq, the position that has taken the most casualties.
``I hear there's some real hot action going on over there,'' said Rogers, whose resume boasts he has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a black sash in Wing Chun Kung Fu.
``I don't want to murder anyone. I just want to see some action again.''
Howatt said many veteran applicants believe the trucking jobs are a way to return to combat even though drivers often work unarmed and travel with a military escort.
They realize quickly that they have signed up a for a job rather than the military, Howatt said, and whether or not they stay on the job comes down to money.
``You take away the money, you take away the incentive,'' Howatt said. ``It's like that for all the positions.''
Reporter Steven Isbitts can be reached at (727) 451-2336.