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In Harm's Way

Silver City trucker Edward Sanchez, featured in the recent documentary Iraq for Sale, found that working in Iraq for a Halliburton subsidiary was a road to trouble.

By Siri Dharma

 

"I believed I was there to help rebuild Iraq. The whole time I was waiting to see when we were going to start rebuilding Iraq."

—Edward Sanchez, Silver City

 

Edward Sanchez, who in early 2004 found himself driving fuel tankers in Iraq for a Halliburton subsidiary, was born and raised in Silver City. Sanchez' experiences in Iraq are chronicled in part in the 2006 Robert Greenwald documentary Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.

A group of Edward Sanchez' fellow KBR truckers.

Sanchez has always been proud to be an American, he says. Now he's not so sure.

He joined the Navy after graduating Silver City High in 1986. He finished his tour in the early 1990s, came home, got his EMT certification and worked at Fort Bayard for about five years. Highly skilled in heavy equipment, he then became a trucker.

Sanchez had been "on the road" for five years when he heard about trucking jobs in Iraq. With child support and a new wife, Sanchez thought it would be a great opportunity to get a handle on his debt load. He reasoned, "I'll sacrifice a year and get everything paid off." The deal was: You go over for three to four months at a stretch and then come back for two weeks.

In December 2003 he signed a year's contract with KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root), a "leading global engineering, construction and services company supporting the energy, petrochemicals, government services and civil infrastructure sectors," according to its Web site, www.kbr.com. KBR is the largest US-based international contractor, according to Engineering News-Record. In January 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded KBR a contract valued at up to $1.2 billion to continue rebuilding Iraq's damaged oil infrastructure. The Arlington, Va., based company is a subsidiary of Houston-based Halliburton Energy Services, the multinational corporation formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. KBR, which has come under fire for its no-bid contracts and destruction of archaeological sites, employs some 30,000 people in Iraq.

Sanchez knew that Iraq was a dangerous place, but he says, "During the hiring process they repeatedly assured us that our safety would not be compromised."

He trusted the company. According to a letter sent to all KBR employees, "There is no quality more important than integrity. This applies to a business just as it does to an individual. Integrity is a core value in our Code of Business Conduct."

Sanchez arrived in Kuwait in January 2004, spending several weeks at one of the many resorts Halliburton/KBR has taken over. He was then assigned to Camp Anaconda, the largest support base in Iraq and home to 35,000 troops and contractors at that time.

Did he experience "culture shock" when he arrived in the Middle East? Sanchez replies, "All of a sudden you're alone with this guy and he's dressed a lot different but before long he offers you a cigarette and it's a Marlboro Lite and you realize, 'Well, this guy's all right, he just wears a dress.'"

The shocks kept coming, though. The next eye-opener for Sanchez was the treatment of KBR workers from countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines— "TCNs" (Third Country Nationals), they're called. In Kuwait the TCNs live in local villages while the Americans and Europeans live in high-end resorts. In Iraq all the contractors are based with the military, but the TCNs are still housed separately.

"Guys would say, 'Oh, they're dirty. Don't let them in the restroom.' [But] they never had a place to shower," Sanchez recalls. "They never had any place to go and eat. They would cook with propane bottles in their fuel tanker—because they had no choice. They were being forced to be dirty. They were being forced to cook on the fuel tanker. They weren't allowed in the chow hall. To me it was very inhumane. I was shocked as an American, I truly was."

Web sites for more information:

  • Iraq for Sale (documentary) link
  • An Oversight Hearing on Accountability for Contracting Abuses in Iraq link
  • Halliburton Plays Patriotism Card for Legal Immunity link
  • Interview with Edward Sanchez on Radio Free Silver link
  • "It's Still About Oil in Iraq," by Antonia Juhasz link
  • Estimated Breakdown of Funding Flows for Iraq's Reconstruction link
  • "Why the US Is Not Leaving Iraq: The Booming Business of War Profiteers," link
  • A Unified Security Budget for the United States: 2007 link
  • "Halliburton Hearts Congress," link

Another shock was the training—or lack thereof—from KBR. "It was a really big joke," he says. He and his co-workers—most of them already experienced truckers—received no preparation other than a defensive-driving test.

The only "training" came from the military units whose function was to protect truck convoys. "The 705th took us for a short drive on the outskirts of the camp just to get radio procedures straight in case you broke down. They didn't want any confusion. They knew that truck drivers like to talk on the radio and they didn't want that."

The trucks themselves and their maintenance proved another shock. KBR buys new Mercedes and Volvo trucks on a "cost plus contract" basis, which guarantees full reimbursement for costs—no matter how high—plus a profit. The more KBR spends, the more money it makes. So shelling out for Mercedes and Volvo vehicles was no surprise. The surprise was that KBR ordered standard tools for the trucks—but Mercedes and Volvos require metric tools. There were no oil filters, no wrenches, no tools to fix the trucks. The truckers couldn't even get an oil change. So these expensive new fuel tankers got old pretty fast, making driving them even more dangerous. Iraq is littered with brand-new machinery, bought with American taxpayer dollars, that's totally useless because it can't be maintained, Sanchez says.

 

Despite these problems, KBR repeatedly promised employees that they would be "kept out of harm's way." For Edward Sanchez, that promise was put to the test on Good Friday, April 9, 2004.

"If you don't remember that time," he says, "the war was already declared over by President Bush."

The night before had been the usual TSTI—Total Safety Task Instruction—meeting, generally considered a joke because all they got was their next route/fuel-delivery assignment. And Good Friday started as a normal day, if a bit rushed. Sanchez missed breakfast in order to take a shower, even though here was no hot water. He was in his truck, ready for the day's mission, at 7 a.m.

Some soldiers came by looking for "the convoy going to Baghdad." Sanchez told them to go to TTM (Theatre Transportation Mission) Operations, which coordinates all the convoys. His orders that day were for Alisad/Webster Marine base, four hours from Camp Anaconda. He'd been there several times already and saw this as another routine convoy—17 fuel trucks and two "bobtails" (trucks without tankers for recovery) plus a few military escorts in Humvees.

But just before Sanchez' convoy could depart, his friend Sonny's convoy suddenly returned—called back by TTM Operations because the roads were "Code Red/Code Black." Sanchez explains, "Which means nobody goes there because insurgents are known to be there."

The last time Sanchez saw his KBR supervisor, he was replacing "Webster" on Sanchez' orders with "BIOP"—Baghdad International Airport, about 30 miles from Camp Anaconda. Sanchez figured they'd be there in a couple of hours. But to this day he doesn't know how long the trip actually took.

"'It's a Fortune 500 company. If it's dangerous, they won't send us.' That's what we're thinking," Sanchez recalls. "We're civilians, we're not soldiers. Our trucks weren't armored. "

Soldiers started climbing on every truck. Sanchez was assigned Private First Class Goodrich, a reservist who'd been "out the gate" (off base) only four times.

The convoy finally left about 10:40 in the morning. Sanchez was driving truck 12 of 19.

 

Within minutes of leaving the base, Sanchez spotted a man with a gasoline tank standing on the side of the road. "He had a cell phone, and I'm thinking, 'There's not supposed to be any cell phone reception here.' We called it in." The convoy was told, "Keep pushing through."

The convoy had just about reached the notorious Abu Ghraib prison when "all hell broke loose. Bullets came from everywhere. Trucks hit with mortars. Grenades going over your cab—over your [fuel] tank! Bullets coming through the back, hitting the windshield [in front]. The only thing they didn't hit was my mirrors."

Sanchez was shot almost immediately, through the truck door. A bullet went through his butt. He remembers a searing, burning pain.

All he could do was keep the accelerator jammed to the floor. But the truck started slowing down. He could hear bullets hitting the engine and the air line. Fuel was flooding everywhere and the right side of his tanker was on fire.

Sanchez told PFC Goodrich to shoot out through the driver's side window. (Civilian drivers aren't allowed to carry guns.) So Goodrich shot a couple of rounds in front of Sanchez' chest. "I felt real uncomfortable with that," Sanchez says. He grabbed the barrel of Goodrich's gun and pointed it out the window. "He just kept pulling the trigger and I was driving. He'd never seen any combat before. We had to fight back. He did a good job. I would not be alive if it wasn't for him."

Sanchez passed several of the convoy's trucks. He saw his friends slumped over and over the radio he could hear them screaming and crying in agony. "It was terror on the radio," he says.

All around him fuel trucks were burning. At this point, Sanchez' truck was traveling about 20 miles an hour, constantly attacked from both sides for several miles. It seemed to go on forever.

Two friends of his, whose trucks had been hit, played dead on the road until they could jump onto Sanchez' vehicle, one of them—with a broken arm—hanging onto the mirror. Sanchez remembers seeing trucker Ray Stannard's head right outside his window and thinking, "If a bullet hits him, it won't hit me."

He adds, "You're thinking these crazy things that don't make any sense but you still think them."

Just beyond Abu Ghraib they came to an overpass. The road was slick, drenched with fuel. Trucks were sliding everywhere. On top of the overpass, suddenly Sanchez felt his truck droop—bullets had finally finished the tires. The back of his tanker was on fire.

"At this point I'm thinking, 'I can't go on," he recalls. "The truck's going to quit. The fire was moving up inside the tank. I told the soldier, 'This thing's going to burn. Get your stuff—we've got to get out of here.'"

Stannard and the other rescued trucker, Michael Brezovay, had already rolled off and were crawled toward the median. Sanchez jumped through his window, but got caught upside-down, hanging momentarily by his steel-toed boot. He hauled himself up on the mirror frame, got his foot out and fell backwards. His helmet saved him.

He stumbled towards his friends on the median. "I jumped right in-between them, and they looked at me like I cheated or something."

Where was PFC Goodrich? Sanchez thought he'd been burned in the truck, but instead the soldier had taken cover, shooting from behind one of the wrecked trucks. "He kept a lot of their attention off of us and we didn't even know it."

A Humvee from the end of the convoy drove right past the stranded truckers. "I remember one soldier's face looking right at us. And they were scared."

Another Humvee came into view. Sanchez knew it was the last one in the convoy. He got up and walked toward it, thinking, "I'm going to go as an ornament or I ain't going to go at all." The Humvee stopped and, somehow, they all got in.

"Then my soldier came," Sanchez relates—PFC Goodrich. "I'm shouting at him, 'Close the door! Close the door now!' He was shooting and starts reaching for the door and he took his round right in the chest."

Sanchez spent the next minutes doing what he could for the wounded private, crammed into the Humvee with no supplies. He used his trucker friend Brezovay's hand to apply pressure to Goodrich's chest. Everyone was soaked in blood.

 

The Humvee made it off the overpass to a stretch of road with houses on each side. The barrage of bullets continued. Sanchez could see children and women standing around the shooters. The Humvee's own .50-caliber machine gun was jammed.

"We fought there for about an hour," he says. "We fought there forever."

Their destination—BIOP—was only about a quarter-mile away. They could see two Bradley tanks guarding the airport gate. Why didn't they come?

Then Sanchez saw a taxicab coming from behind them—one of Saddam Hussein's former government cars with red-orange doors. He remembers thinking, "Oh, God, they're not coming to help us. They're coming to kill us!" At that same moment, a soldier in the Humvee got the machine gun unjammed—and "annihilated" the taxicab.

When the Humvee reached 80-90 yards from the airport gate, the Bradleys finally started moving towards them. Once safely through the gate, the first thing Sanchez and the others heard was, "Who are you guys?"

"We work for Halliburton—we're truck drivers—we're bringing you guys fuel," they replied.

The soldiers at the airport were dumbfounded. "That road's been closed for over 48 hours," they told the truckers. "Nobody's supposed to be out there. We've been fighting that militia for over two days. We can't knock them out."

Nor did the airport even need fuel. Sanchez' friend Sonny told him his convoy had finally unloaded its fuel at the Air Force "fuel farm" because the Army's was full. Since the fuel is ordered by KBR and the fuel farm is managed by KBR, the company would have known that BIOP's fuel farm was full before Sanchez' convoy ever left Camp Anaconda.

Sanchez says, "So they ordered the fuel that they did not need and it was delivered at the cost of human life, knowing that the roads were closed for civilian travel."

The truckers were escorted to a nearby dairy farm—considered a "safe house"—and for the first time Sanchez could check his wounds. The bullet in his butt had gone in one side and out the other. There was also half a bullet in his neck—taken out three days later—and pieces of metal soaked into his skin. "My skin looked silvery because there were hundreds of pieces of metal flakes. . . shredded in it. Months later pieces of metal were still coming out. It hurt."

 

After being treated for their wounds, the truckers were kept in isolation in an old meat locker for three days. Then they were whisked out of Iraq and back to the comfort of Kuwaiti resorts—where they were also kept isolated from KBR management.

Six men died, with another missing and presumed dead, and seven were seriously injured in the attack on the convoy. From Army reports, Sanchez learned later they had been fired on by more than 400 militia. For being wounded in action, Sanchez was given the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

The truckers' KBR supervisor never even bothered with a phone call to any of them, Sanchez says. Never asked them anything. Never visited, never even sent a "get well" card. The KBR supervisor never telephoned the family members of the employees who died. According to Sanchez, he misspelled peoples' name in the official report.

KBR never told the other truckers back in Camp Anaconda what had happened. But the truckers saw it on big-screen TV in the chow hall, and "80 to 90 percent" of them quit on the spot, Sanchez says.

A lawsuit is being filed against KBR, but Sanchez can't talk about it. He never learned why the convoy was ordered to Baghdad. "That's the big question. They won't answer that. They won't release any information to even our attorney. There's evidence that we have that's sealed. The LA Times tried to get it released and a judge would not release it."

One fact to consider, says Sanchez, is that Halliburton knows immediately, and in real-time (via the satellite-linked computer system, Qualcomm), when roads are too dangerous and thus forbidden by military law for civilian convoys to travel upon.

KBR is now claiming "sovereignty," Sanchez says. "They are claiming to be equal to the Army or an Army agency."

At the Senate Democratic Policy Committee's Oversight Hearing on Accountability for Contracting Abuses in Iraq, in which Sanchez participated, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin was incredulous: "So, they're arguing that when it comes to making profits, they're a private company, but when it comes to being held accountable for their mismanagement and misconduct, they're somehow now part of our government."

Soon thereafter, a federal court judge accepted this claim of "sovereign immunity" and threw out the lawsuit. The case is on appeal.

Today Edward Sanchez is back home in Silver City, working as a trucker for Phelps Dodge. The "sacrifice" he envisioned making to rebuild both Iraq and his family's financial situation didn't work out at all the way he'd planned. The Good Friday attack left him with a permanent limp, and definite signs of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He gave his prize motorcycle to his dad because he can't put on his helmet without getting a physical and emotional reaction. The memories of that attack still linger, as hard to shake out of his head as desert dust from his boots.

"They absolutely knew—they knew without a shadow of a doubt," he says quietly, voice fading. "Yet they sent us. . . They never told us."

 

Siri Dharma writes the Into the Future column and works for a US foreign-policy "think tank" based in Silver City.

 

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