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'I Learned to Handle Myself'

| 7 Comments

Part 2 of 3 of a series written by my friend Kat, who was a contractor's employee in Iraq for almost two years: "You'll Never Know What We Did" | " I Learned to Handle Myself..." | "I Wasn't Chasing Blood"

She refutes the media's excuse for not covering the Iraq reconstruction. The introduction to the series is here. The series hinges on an interview with Dexter Filkins of the "New York Times" in which he says the media can't cover the reconstruction work ongoing around the country because doing so would be too dangerous to the media.

Her post about that drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating she was just pushing "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.

This is her response. Part one is here.

[by Kat]

You're apparently upset that I come down hard on Dexter and the NYT. That's understandable, but stay with me a little here.

I didn't have lots of guards. I had Iraqi nationals working for me who had to worry about being shot. I had to help them figure out safe lies, figure out safe ways to go home. I had to teach the girls working for me how to do their jobs because they'd never had a really good job before. I also had to try to protect and watch out for them. Girls working for us sometimes also needed support with lies about their jobs, travel information, and occasionally security for travel.

The lying extended to producing false job-related paperwork for their cars and to carry on their persons. From three different offices we "sold" orders for detergents, orders for cell phone batteries, and sandals, and produced an array of paperwork to support those claims.

And that's not about me taking care of myself, Bob. That's about my people, my employees, who half the time couldn't get their jobs done unless I was there to help them.

So what did I do for my security? What did I do when I needed to move? Well, my bosses got us security, kinda. And we had pretty good trucks, even if they weren't armored. My security for much of my time in Iraq was a 19-year-old kid who more than anything needed a job and owned his own gun. He was a big kid for an Iraqi and I'm more than sure he was hooked up on the street, so he was actually pretty safe to have around (unless you were one of the younger women in my office, but that's a different story).

My other guy was in his mid-40's and Iraqi army. He wasn't suitable for regular duty. But he was filling Iraqi obligations as the coalition began handing over government responsibilities to the interim Iraqi government. He was a true sweetheart, but nothing like U.S. soldiers or the Iraqi soldiers you see on TV today.

You wonder about what I saw, in terms of blood. That appears to be, beyond my pierced belly-button, what will provide for your comparison of me to Dexter and the "Times" crew. Okay.
  • We had one Iraqi subcontractor whose son and wife both worked with him. I saw him and his son at the morgue dead after both of them were found shot in their truck. I tried my best to comfort his wife, but there wasn't much I could do.
  • During the same year, 2004, we lost another 14 American, Iraqi and third-nation —i.e., neither U.S. or Iraqi — nationals in the various crews we worked with: some shot, some hit by IEDs, but some also through robbery and murder. I didn't see all of those bodies because of our locations, but I saw enough of them, and as a group we knew what the deaths meant to the families.
  • We lost two managers from one company back-to-back, one killed the day after the other. One was shot up sitting in his car; the other was just unlucky enough to be buying food when a car blew up, killing him and eight Iraqis. I knew both of them, and that both had families back in the U.S.
  • Another time, we came up behind a patrol that had just been hit by an IED that took out a humvee and one soldier's arm and part of his face. He lived, but I know his life has changed.

    That experience was crazy because we came up on them fast and they didn't recognize our IDs and we came very close to being shot. We nosed the truck to the side of the road, had to get out of it, and lie on the ground while we and our vehicle were being looked over. We had come up on the fast, immediately after the explosion, and that's a no-no.

    On this occasion I was in Iraqi clothing, my security was in civilian attire, and it was too confusing to get myself identified. Fortunately, our soldiers are pros, we obeyed their signals, and we didn't get shot. You just lie face down and wait until they're ready to deal with you, but it's difficult to live through that time. On the other hand, if they'd shot me by accident, you can bet your life you'd have read about that in the news. Those guys have zero room for mistakes, and their lives are always targeted.

  • In another situation, we were finishing dropping off food and candy at an orphanage when another IED popped off half a block away. We later learned it killed one Iraqi who was my brother's age and severely injured two others. Some gunshots were fired, and it took two hours for U.S. troops to arrive and things to settle down enough for us to be able to leave.

    As we were leaving, more rounds started going off; I didn't even know what was going on until we were suddenly swerving and my security person was yanking me down to the floor in the truck. One of our (American) soldiers caught a bullet in his thigh and another in his knee and was close to dying from loss of blood when they got him out of there.

    We spent the next hour huddled against our truck with it wedged up next to the outside wall of the orphanage until two hummers drew up next to us and escorted us out of the area. It's only by chance that they even saw us, because of where we were, and if I'd been veiled at the time we might have been shot instead of rescued because we both had our guns in our hands.
Our first office was west of Baghdad, along the highway to Fallujah. That was a prime killing ground for several months, but it was better than Fallujah itself, which was close to one of our primary projects at the time. For my bosses and other contractors going in or out of the area, it was just as dangerous as it was for any Army or Marine personnel -- and certainly as dangerous as it was for news crews.

Western contractors and supply vehicles were targeted much more regularly than were military vehicles. They were softer targets, and insurgents often could see what materials were being delivered, and they usually knew what they were being delivered for. The insurgents understoood that halting the reconstruction work we were doing was an essential part of their plan to win in Iraq. The biggest prizes were, of course, major military vehicles. But trucks and materials could be taken out with less trouble and explosive materials, as could key workers if they could be identified.

So the least-safe circumstances involved a contractor hauling materials for rebuilding. As things got worse in the area, my bosses moved my office further north and east into an area that at the time was safer but ultimately proved to be just as violent, though for entirely different reasons.

There, instead of having to worry about myself or others I worked with being blasted by a IED or RPG, we had to worry about snipers and kidnappers, rapists and thieves. I began dressing “local” more consistently and wearing a veil more at this time. And you are right: It is easier to blend in when this is done.

On the other hand, adopting the look and dress and manners of locals also subjects a woman to a different set of scrutiny usually reserved for Muslim Iraqi women. If you intend to blend in, you must accept that there are certain things you may do and things you cannot do. Wearing the clothing brings certain expectations, and it does not pay to let people know you aren't who they thought you were and then hang around long enough for them to feel foolish. In the wrong neighborhoods, the entire event can become a highly complex theatrical act, particularly if you have something important that you must accomplish. This is true for men, but it is especially true for women.

Ultimately, I learned to handle myself, as myself, around some very hard people. I also learned to appreciate the softer people who were trapped there alongside the hard ones. And in doing so I gained a rather deep appreciation for the situations that existed in certain areas. In those areas, people sometimes died for what seemed to me to be nothing, but in truth there were reasons as complex as you could imagine.

Regardless of the reasons, I shared some of the pain, and I certainly saw a good deal of the blood. In doing so, amongst other revelations, I could understand the limitations of our military and realize the depth of their responsibilities. And, Bob, this is where the differences are.

The Series

7 Comments

A very enlightening posting, my thanks to Kat.

She rocks. I didn't know women like that existed.

Kat, I'm a PMP who happened to deploy to Iraq with my Guard unit. You do honor to your profession, and I can't imagine doing my Civilian job under my military circumstances.

You did. Wow. You should write a book "Combat Project Management: Lessons Learned in Iraq."

Way off topic really, but perhaps she could give us a "range report" on the AKSU-74?

I've been thinkin' about building up a semi Krinkov myself. I've just never actually seen anything by anybody who used one off the range.

Just a comment about "Bobs" comments. According to a report by Reporters Without Borders, as of March 06 there were 68 reporters killed since '03. Now their graphs and charts don't match up and they only identify 60 by name and nationality but this is how the list they provide stacks up.
1 Aussie, 1 Brit. 2 Americans, 1 German, 2 Spaniards, i Ukranian, 2 Palistine, 1 Pole, 1 Algerian, and 2 Japanese. There were 46 Iraq on the list.
The circumstances of each death are not given except for some clearly unsubstantiated claims EG US military supposidly has killed 10 or 12%. BTW 12% of 68 is 8.16 or of the 60 listed 7.2. The whole site is full inconsistancies like this but nevertheless it makes the point that most of the "reporting" in Iraq is done by local stringers or contractors.
Clearly "Bobs world" doesn't have much to do with reality. BTW I have been a Journalist/Publisher for 35 years plus and "Kat's" piece is a lot better reporting than 99% of what I have read coming out of the MSM.

It is clearly dangerous for any western reporter to travel in Iraq outside of the Green Zone unless imbedded with US military. This clearly inhibits any sort of field reporting including of reconstruction. Kat complains about the MSM's failure to report about reconstruction. Well has Fox News or Ralph Peters done any better? It's just not very newsworthy, given the daily death and destruction. Is there some big reconstruction success story hiding out there? I don't think so. Iraq appears to be an economic basket case.

As to the claim that only 60 reporters have been killed as compared to 368 contractors. So what? There are probably only 50-100 western reporters in the country. There have been thousands to tens of thousands of contractors, including many security and paramilitary contractors.

For Chew. It's late here in Bangkok and it's been a long day, but while I'm here and still off my normal time schedule I'll try to answer this for you.

"It is clearly dangerous for any western reporter to travel in Iraq outside of the Green Zone unless imbedded with US military.This clearly inhibits any sort of field reporting including of reconstruction."

Yes it is, just as it is clearly dangerous for any westerner, most all of whom still go out and do their jobs without the benefit of being embedded. So yes, the danger is inhibiting. But it is inhibiting for everybody, not just reporters.

"Well has Fox News or Ralph Peters done any better?"

No. Fox News has been just as disappointing as every other MSM source in their lack of reporting. When I say I'm angry with the MSM, I mean the WHOLE of the MSM.

"It's just not very newsworthy, given the daily death and destruction."

I totally disagree. We have three major efforts being made in Iraq to rebuild that country, all of which are absolutely necessary for success. The military effort, the reconstruction of the physical infrastructure, and the political formation of a new governnment. All three have to work in order for our mission to be successful. Guess which one involves the most people and the most money, and you'll have guessed the one that you're the most clueless about.

Every one of our projects that gets completed adds another piece to the puzzle, and that's one reason insurgents do their best to try to slow down their progress or destroy them. Our job isn't a game or a side note, no matter how boring it may seem.

"Is there some big reconstruction success story hiding out there? I don't think so. Iraq appears to be an economic basket case."

Yes there are, Chew. And where the economy is concerned, to you it probably does look like that, but then you're not being very well informed. For the reason why.. read my posts. In truth, even including the bloody wet spots, not a single nation in the world can presently match Iraq's rate of economic growth, and the "in the know" portion of the business world isn't backing down from their long-term expectations.

"As to the claim that only 60 reporters have been killed as compared to 368 contractors. So what? There are probably only 50-100 western reporters in the country. There have been thousands to tens of thousands of contractors, including many security and paramilitary contractors."

I don't tend to count paramilitary contractors in my discussions because frankly, they're living in and working in a completely different employment environment from the rest of us. As companies, their sole reason for existing is to deter violence or fight it out with bad guys, no matter where they are employed. They exist in Iraq purely out of security necessity, and they're paid specifically to perform security functions in hostile environments. They serve both KBR and the NYT, so political persuasions don't mean a thing to them. As long as there are hostilites, they'll find employment.

The rest of us typically make our living BUILDING things, and while we're used to dealing with difficulties, being shot at isn't one we're usually asked to deal with. In my case and for most of us who went into country early, most of this type of activity wasn't something we really expected. But most of us dealt with it anyway. The press, on the other hand, went specifically to cover a war, completely, one would assume, including the military, political, AND reconstruction efforts of our government. If they weren't willing to cover it, they should have been up front and clearly told us that from the beginning.

As to our numbers versus those of the press, if our vast majority went ahead and did our work despite the threat, one might expect at least a similar portion of the press to do theirs. Even if the number of press in the country is only 100, to match our dedication at least 75-85% of them should be out kicking it in the field. Ten percent max just won't get it.

Chew, you're exactly they kind of person I want to reach, and I don't care about your nationality, your party, your political leanings, or any of the rest of that junk. All I want for you to do is your own personal homework, and THINK really hard while you're digging up things on the internet. Everything doesn't have to be spectacular, controversial, or spooky for it to be worthy of attention.

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