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New York Newsday: Working in a war zone

by Patricia KitchenNewsday
February 13th, 2005

The recruiter says you'll be working eight- to 12-hour days in a 120-degree desert populated by scorpions, camel spiders and people looking to kill you. You'll be dusty and dirty most of the time. You're shown slides of what your residence - a prefab metal container - looks like when it's blown apart by mortar fire. You learn that about 60 other company employees or subcontractors have been killed - and one is missing.

Still, 1 in 10 applicants for jobs with the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, based in Houston, remain willing to take those well-paying truck driver, food service, laundry and maintenance positions in Iraq.

This despite extensive media coverage of the kidnappings, beheadings and suicide attacks on civilian workers there. And there's no doubt that civilians are prime targets. Besides the roughly 1,500 U.S. military casualties so far, there have been 232 casualties among civilians working for U.S. contractors, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

'Talk them out of it'

"They are very candid," Bronx native Tony Montalvo says of his employer, Kellogg Brown & Root, also known as KBR. "It's not like anyone goes in a vacuum." A former U.S. Army chief warrant officer who has been to Iraq several times since joining KBR five years ago to do logistics work, he says, sure, he's been in a couple of dicey situations there. "It made you think twice," he says. But then, "it's time to get back to work. We're there to support the soldiers."

While many employers are wooing potential candidates, KBR head recruiter John Watson says he and his 67 recruiters are "trying to talk them out of it." But with 16,000 applicants a month, he's not worried about filling his 2,000 present openings. And average salaries of $80,000 to $100,000 a year certainly don't hurt the cause.

The screening process

After a couple of telephone interviews, about 500 of the most qualified candidates are brought to Houston each week to start a 10- to 14-day orientation session that includes medical and background checks and training in life-saving techniques, such as how to don those yellow nuclear, biological and chemical protective suits.

Some also get to hear the behind-the-scenes scoop from another employee, Thomas Hamill, 44, the truck driver from Mississippi who escaped his captors last spring after being kidnapped during a convoy attack.

Low dropout rate

About one in five drop out after the orientation session, Watson says. Recruits come from all over, but the top states where employees deployed in the Middle East come from include Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

Recruiting presents few problems for other employers, too, says Stan Soloway, president of Arlington, Va.-based Professional Services Council, a trade association for companies that provide technical and professional services to the U.S. government. He estimates the group's members have about 30,000 U.S. and third-country workers deployed in Iraq.

Steven Candito, president of National Response Corp., an oil-spill cleanup firm based in Great River, says he looked first with great success to staff volunteers to fill the 30 or so jobs he's had in the region. His backup is a network of about 4,000 employees of independent subcontractors - one of whom, Robert Grimm, 63, of East Setauket, was one of the first civilian casualties. On a National Response oil-spill cleanup job in Kuwait, Grimm was killed in a Jeep accident shortly after the war started in March 2003.

"We never tried to talk people into going," says Candito, who has no workers in the region now.

Red Zone conditions

Other recruiters report more of a challenge. "It's not easy," says Andrew Kaufman, owner of Cogent Staffing Solutions in Gaithersburg, Md. In his search for accountants and auditors, he says that about 1 in 20 qualified candidates is interested in proceeding once working conditions in the Red Zone are described: the ongoing sounds of bombs and gunfire, the sighting of dead bodies. "I try to be as upfront as possible," he says.

Still, over the past six months he's placed three people there at about triple the salaries they would be earning in the States. That would be $75-$100 an hour for those with just four or five years' experience. Those most interested, he says, are single young men, often with a military background.

Some people are so drawn to these dangerous jobs that they mistakenly send resumes to groups that actually oppose those contractors they want to work for.

Several resumes are sent each week to the Web site of CorpWatch, a San Francisco-based group opposed to corporate-led globalization, which also operates a site called WarProfiteers.com.

Job hunters do a Google search of firms such as Halliburton and DynCorp, says Pratap Chatterjee, CorpWatch's program director, and end up at his site by mistake.

So many so that his associate now sends back a form e-mail response saying: "We do not have any information regarding obtaining work in Iraq. We are a journalistic Web site that investigates and criticizes companies who have contracts in Iraq. Please go to www.warprofiteers.com to learn more about these companies."

Still, few seem to be deterred. Chatterjee says he advises people not to go, "but a lot really don't want to listen."
Many may be in the camp of Tony Montalvo, the KBR logistics employee. He says that despite the dangers, he sees the reconstruction endeavor as "one big team partnering together to bring peace to that region."





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