To make a living, driver risked it all

Iraq: Soldiers' deaths make the headlines, but the violence has also claimed the lives of civilian contractors such as Art Linderman.

February 08, 2004|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIDDLETOWN, Del. - Art Linderman lived his life surrounded by stars and stripes - from a plaque with a flag motif on his living room wall, to his blankets, his mailbox and most prominently in his front yard, where Old Glory shared a pole with a Marine banner.

On Jan. 30, the American flag draped the coffin of the 58-year-old grandfather and Vietnam veteran, the victim of insurgents in Iraq.

It wasn't patriotism, though, that sent Linderman thousands of miles from home to Iraq, where he arrived in August to work as a civilian truck driver for KBR, the engineering and construction wing of Halliburton Co. He was there because he couldn't find steady work at home.

"We said everything to try to convince him not to go," said his wife, Linda. "The military servicemen, they're over there doing their job. But he just wanted to make a living for us. That's the only reason he was there."

In May 2001, Linderman and 150 fellow Teamsters lost their jobs working for a contractor at the local Chrysler plant. With his family struggling to pay the bills, a neighbor's tip about high-paying jobs in Iraq lured him into the danger zone, where blue-collar workers can make $70,000 to $100,000 a year tax-free.

Americans are accustomed to hearing the military death toll in Iraq - 529 since the war started - because the Pentagon knows exactly how many of its 130,000 service men and women are in the country and what has happened to them.

But largely absent from the public consciousness are the thousands of civilians putting their lives on the line as contractors in Iraq, the cooks, plumbers, electricians, construction laborers, translators, security guards, drivers and other workers.

"You see it on the news all the time, two U.S. soldiers killed, and then two civilians. They don't even say if they're American or Iraqi," said Linderman's son, Art III, 32. "Most Americans don't realize there are a lot of U.S. citizens over there now."

Linderman told his family not to worry - if he made it through 18 months as a Marine in Vietnam, he could make it through Iraq. He wore a helmet and flak jacket to work. His truck, which he personalized with a dashboard flag and a duct-taped sign out front that said "Irish Rover," had a military escort.

But with convoys under repeated attack, Linderman sounded increasingly concerned during phone conversations with family and friends. His windshield and headlights had to be replaced after being shattered by gunfire. A few weeks ago, he told his son he was being issued a 9 mm handgun. After former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was captured, his daughter, Deanna Linderman, 34, asked him whether things had improved. He said no, they had gotten worse.

"He wasn't scared of nothing," said his best friend, Mitch Radulski of Bear, Del., Linderman's night-shift buddy in the car yard. "But I could hear it in his voice; he was not comfortable where he was."

On Jan. 14, Linderman's convoy was near Tikrit when the insurgents attacked. Two people were killed, and two were wounded, including Linderman.

For more than a week, he lingered on life-support as he was flown to Germany, then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and, finally, to Christiana Hospital in Delaware. He died Jan. 26, the day he had been scheduled to return home for two weeks of rest and relaxation.

No one formally tracks the number of U.S. civilian contractors in Iraq or how many have been killed or injured.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, led by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, estimates that about 4,000 U.S. civilians are working for private companies in Iraq and that about 800 civilians are employed by the Department of Defense. Of those, the authority estimates, five U.S. civilians, all of them working for private companies, have been killed since President Bush declared the war over May 1. The authority has no estimates on the number of injuries.

But getting an accurate count is tricky, given the swelling numbers of American and non-U.S. contractors working in the country, and with new companies popping up all the time.

"No one knows the figures. The accounting and accountability is Enron-like," said P.W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Corporate Warriors.

Using the rule-of-thumb ratio of one contractor to every 10 U.S. soldiers, Singer estimates that the number of civilians in Iraq performing military-support functions alone could be 10,000 to 15,000, including non-U.S. contractors. Beyond that, numerous contractors perform nonmilitary tasks such as installing a cell phone network.

Singer estimates that the civilian death toll among all contractors has exceeded 25. "But we don't know where it stops. It could be 50," he said.

"It's not even arguable that the U.S. military could not accomplish its mission right now without the support from these contractors, given how stretched thin they are," Singer said. "But it raises concerns about accountability ... and the terrible planning before this war."

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