Surrounded by darkness, an AK-47 at his side, Jonathon Cote considered his future from the driver's seat of a black Chevy Avalanche hurtling through southern Iraq early last November.
Months earlier, Cote had been a reluctant accounting major at the University of Florida, a popular 23-year-old freshman who'd enrolled after four years in the Army. Cote pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and collected $5 covers at a bar called the Whiskey Room. He drove a red Yamaha R1 motorcycle around campus until one evening he did a wheelie and was arrested for drunk driving.
Broke and despondent, Cote spoke to an Army buddy, who told him he could make $7,000 a month protecting supply convoys in Iraq. On his days off, his friend told him, he'd get to go jet-skiing on the Persian Gulf. Cote was concerned that he might lose his Florida driver's license, but in Iraq he would pilot a company "gun truck" with a belt-fed machine gun mounted in back.
"Basically I was looking for a feeling that I didn't have, and this job provided that," Cote said, his iPod set to shuffle as he steered his truck through the soft Iraqi night. "It's a distraction from the DUI, how I couldn't find a degree that I liked in college. And then there's the money. I have $30,000, and I'm going back to school with a plan."
"Life-threatening situations straighten you up fast," he said.
He had already announced his intention to return home on his U.S. voice mail and had picked a new major, exercise physiology.
On Nov. 16, Cote's plan was undone by the realities of Iraq. Driving their gun trucks along the same stretch of highway where he had sketched his future, he and four colleagues from Crescent Security Group, a small private firm, were ambushed and taken hostage. The status of the four Americans and one Austrian, 25-year-old Bert Nussbaumer of Vienna, is unknown. Cote's 24th birthday passed Feb. 11. His drunk-driving case was dismissed after the seizure.
Two weeks before the attack, the four Americans spoke at length to a Washington Post reporter traveling with them in Iraq. Together, their stories describe the diverse motivations of the private security guards whose numbers have proliferated since the start of the war, with tens of thousands of armed civilians taking on some of the most dangerous tasks.
All four missing Americans are military veterans; two -- Cote and Joshua Munns, a 24-year-old former Marine from Redding, Calif. -- did combat tours in Iraq. Their comments reveal men acutely aware of their vulnerability, yet driven by life choices that transcend mercenary stereotypes. To a man, they said they had come to Iraq for fast money. But they were also lured by the camaraderie they had known in the military, the continuous rush of adrenaline, the opportunity to see history unfold and the chance to escape mundane lives back home.
"This is me, okay? This is me," said John Young, who led the Crescent team that was ambushed and is among the missing. Young, 44, of Lee's Summit, Mo., is 5-foot-8 and thin, with a shaved head, blond mustache and piercing blue eyes. After leaving the Army in 1991, he worked as a carpenter in a family business before joining Crescent in 2005. He has a 15-year-old daughter, Jasmyn, and a 19-year-old son, John Robert.
Young had decided to keep returning to Iraq, even after a bullet took a chunk out of the collar of his armored vest and threw him into the steering wheel as he escorted a convoy through Baghdad one afternoon.
The tattered vest that saved him was displayed on a wooden table in a conference room at Crescent's Kuwait City offices.
"I want to have a normal life -- I always have -- but I've always known that I'm not that kind of person," Young said.
"I've spent an entire lifetime trying to explain it to myself. I mean, my children are a big thing to me. I'm not saying I'm the best dad in the world, but I love my children. I want to see my daughter get married. I want to see my son graduate. I want normal things in life. But I'm not normal."
The conversations took place in the cabs of the Crescent gun trucks as the guards drove through the Iraqi desert; during long waits before they crossed the sand-choked Kuwait-Iraq border; at Popeyes, T.G.I. Friday's and other Kuwait City restaurants that reminded them of home; and in their spare, dormitory-style rooms, filled with video game players and televisions and family pictures, where they passed time between missions.
At the time of the kidnapping, Crescent had 17 Western employees, from the United States, Britain, Chile, Austria and New Zealand, according to Franco Picco, the company's managing partner. Paul Chapman, Picco's deputy, said Crescent received roughly 600 job applications from abroad each month.
The company closed down within months of the attack.
"To me, this is a prestigious job," Cote said before the ambush and seizure.
"There's only a certain percentage of people who are doing this. It's like a hidden, secret part of the war, and if I could be part of that hidden, secret thing, it would be cool, you know? It's kind of like being part of history. People are gonna be like, 'Oh, man, remember the war? Where were you?' I was here. I was here."
'It's Not the Getting Hit Part That Bothers Me'
Crescent operated out of a quiet sandstone villa in Kuwait City, across the street from a mosque. The guards lived in rooms with wireless Internet, twin beds, wooden desks and concrete floors. Before dawn, as the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the courtyard, the men, clad in khakis and black shirts with a white Crescent logo, climbed into their trucks to make the one-hour drive to Iraq.
After reaching Camp Navistar, a border staging base, the men fueled their vehicles, then waited in a dirt lot in the heat for clearance to cross into Iraq. The constant rumble of Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and tractor-trailers filled the air with dust and the stench of diesel fumes. The wait could last for hours.
"I haven't been home in four months," said Paul Reuben, a former Marine, as he waited at the border one morning.
Reuben turned 40 eight days after he was seized. He stands 6-foot-4, weighs 260 pounds and smiles almost continuously, his beard and gentle manner giving him the look of an overstuffed teddy bear. Reuben has a twin brother, Patrick, a Minneapolis police officer, twin 16-old-daughters, Bree Anne and Casey Nicole, and a 16-year-old stepson, Terrell. He resigned from the St. Louis Park, Minn., police department in 2003 after a drunk-driving arrest. Reuben said he applied online for private security jobs and was hired immediately.
Waiting at the staging base, Reuben said he was exhausted from having worked "72 or 73 days straight" and jittery from fending off constant attacks. Two weeks earlier, he'd thought he heard fireworks while driving through Basra, a city racked by militia-fueled violence, but quickly realized the explosions were a volley of rocket-propelled grenades aimed at his convoy.
"The RPG attacks were the scariest thing I've ever seen," he said.
Reuben went back and forth about whether to stay on. He weighed the risk and time away from his family against the cash, which never seemed to be enough, and the appeal of the warrior lifestyle.
"I kind of like doing it. I enjoy it," he said, smiling. "I'm getting caught up on some bills and stuff like that. And I heard they're coming out with that new Dodge Challenger in 2008. I want that."
"I can't handle monotony," said Munns, the young former Marine who is also missing. "I gotta have something that shocks my system so I know I'm still alive."
Munns is tall and lanky, with an air of military discipline and close-cropped brown hair that fluffs into an Afro when he doesn't cut it. A meticulously scripted tattoo encircles his left forearm: "The unwanted, doing the unforgivable, for the ungrateful." The tattoo was the motto of his Marine sniper platoon, which fought in the 2004 assault on Fallujah.
"It's us doing the dirty work for the rest of our society who don't really care about us," he said.
Munns left the Marines in 2005 and said he immediately regretted his decision. He spent a year installing swimming pools for Viking Pools of Redding but still worked half as hard as he did in the military. He had applied to reenlist in the Marines when the Crescent job came along.
The job fulfilled Munns's need for excitement, he said. It also helped him and his fiancee, Jackie Shaw, buy a three-level fixer-upper in Redding that he dreamed of renovating himself. At the time of the attack, the house purchase was in progress.
The culture of private security was different from the brotherhood Munns had known in the Marines. He said he reserved his loyalty for his two closest friends, Cote and Mike Skora, an Army veteran from Chicago. The three guards had made a pact, half in jest: They would take their own lives or shoot each other to avoid being captured.
"I'd take a bullet for them," Munns said of Cote and Skora. "The rest of these people, I probably wouldn't."
Munns turned to Cote one morning as they prepared to cross the border. "It's not the getting hit part that bothers me," he said. "It's the getting lost and getting hung from a bridge part."
'I'd Go Home and I'd Feel Empty'
Jonathon Cote has a boy's face and cornerback's build, the result of weightlifting and a joyless diet of salads without dressing and canned peaches that he kept stacked in his closet. He wore T-shirts and extravagantly torn jeans as he strolled through Kuwait City's malls, drawing glances amid men in starched white robes and women in black abayas.
His older brother Christopher called Jonathon an "extrovert in the extreme," a sensitive thrill-seeker who craves speed and adventure. The son of a Marine, Jon Cote was born in Long Beach, Calif., and went to high school in suburban Buffalo, N.Y.; for kicks, he and his brother would tether a snowboard to a car and ride it through a foot of snow.
In Kuwait City, Cote exercised at a local gym, then spent hours in a backroom shop watching a jeweler painstakingly craft a ring for his mother's birthday. Driving through Baghdad, he'd roll down the windows and turn up the music on his stereo, rocking in his seat with some of Crescent's Iraqi guards. "You don't have to worry about much if you're having a good time," he said.
Cote's friends and family laughed when they heard he was majoring in accounting at Florida. "It was like an oxymoron: Jon the accountant," Chris said.
Cote said he hated most of his four years in the Army. He disdained authority. College life suited him better, at least at first. People were drawn to the freshman with combat experience; even the seniors looked up to him.
But Cote said he felt disoriented, caught between the disciplined world he had left behind in the military and a new one that seemed shallow in comparison. Cote had also done a tour in Afghanistan. He once remarked to Chris that it seemed as if he had lived two lifetimes compared with the students around him. "I was like this fun, energetic kid who made everybody laugh and made everybody have a good time," he said. "But on the inside I was torn apart. I didn't know how to deal with it. So I'd go out to a party and have an awesome time, and then I'd go home and I'd feel empty. And I'd be like, 'Why do I feel this way? What . . . is wrong with me?' "
The drunk-driving arrest was merely the last straw, Cote said. "I was ashamed of what I did. And I couldn't pay for school, I couldn't pay for my apartment. I didn't want to deal with not being able to drive. I had to get a job, and the job I was going to get was probably going to be working in a bar and dealing with all these college people and their bull."
Cote had kept in touch with Skora, his old squad leader in the 82nd Airborne. After leaving the military, Skora, 35, had applied online for private security jobs. Within a month, he was in Iraq with another now-defunct security firm. He later moved to Crescent.
Cote was reluctant to leave school, but he looked at the security job as a chance to straighten out his life.
"It basically gave me an opportunity to run away from my problems," he said. "So I just left."
'And the Screams. . . . It Rips Your Heart Out'
Cote soon discovered there was no time for jet-skiing.
The work was constant, and he developed a love-hate relationship with his job. For the first time since entering college, he believed he was involved in something meaningful.
"Without us, who knows what would happen to the drivers and the cargo?" he said. He felt no guilt about the money. "The war is here. I didn't start it. If I could do it for my country, why couldn't I come over here and make a little money?"
But the work was relentless, and more dangerous than he'd imagined. "That's the worst part about this job: There's no time to think about yourself. Sometimes you should take a step back and take it all in and be like, 'What am I really here for? Why am I really doing this? Is it really worth it?' You go out, you get hit and come back, you go out and get hit and come back. You just become numb, and you just do it."
Cote said he was increasingly repulsed by what he saw on Iraq's dangerous roads. Last August, he was sent out with a Crescent team to pick up the remains of an Iraqi guard who had been killed in a bombing. The body had been taken to Tallil Air Base, about three hours north of the border. The temperature in southern Iraq that day was close to 120 degrees.
The military handed over the body in a metal coffin filled with ice. "They were really apologetic because they didn't know which end was up or the bottom or whatever," Cote said.
Crescent guards met the man's family beneath an overpass outside Basra; it was too dangerous for them to enter the city. As Cote helped strap the coffin to the roof of an orange-and-white sedan, the man's brother screamed the dead guard's name, Basheer, over and over, the name echoing beneath the overpass as he beat his fists against his chest.
Cote was suddenly stricken: The coffin had a drip valve that was positioned directly over the windshield. Water and blood trickled over the glass. "Just that kind of mental picture, it's not something you want to have in your head," he said.
"And the screams from his family. It rips your heart out."
Cote recalled looking at Skora when he got back to Kuwait.
"I don't know, man," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know about this."
But he decided to stay.
'I Still Feel Bad. I Wasn't There for Him.'
On the eve of the kidnapping, Cote stayed up all night with Skora at the Crescent villa, talking excitedly about his plans to return home. He had set a date, Dec. 7, just three weeks away. He planned to return to school in the spring.
The next day, Skora wasn't on the convoy. "I still feel bad," he said recently in Baghdad. "I wasn't there for him."
Crescent teams had made the run nearly every day for months without incident. On Nov. 16, the guards planned to lead a convoy of 37 tractor-trailers up Main Supply Route Tampa to Tallil Air Base, then return to Kuwait.
Cote shared the point vehicle with Munns. They were the first to encounter the fake checkpoint where the ambush occurred. Dozens of masked men, some in Iraqi police uniforms, had set up a roadblock. They forced the guards from their vehicles at gunpoint.
In his eyewitness account, Andy Foord, a British guard who was left behind, described Cote as initially confused, believing that the attackers "were the police and they were just checking our weapons serial numbers, weapons permits and licenses."
Cote wasn't seen again until Dec. 26, when the captors released a time-stamped video that had been shot approximately two weeks after the ambush. The footage opened with an image of the Koran and a map of Iraq, then this message: "The National Islamic Resistance in Iraq: The Farqan (Quran) Brigades takes responsibility for the kidnapping in Safwan, Basra."
The Crescent hostages sat cross-legged on the floor. Cote had the only visible injuries: His nose was swollen, and red blotches could be seen on his face.
"My name is Jonathon Cote," he said, calmly. He wore a short-sleeved white T-shirt, gray pants and socks. "I am 23, from Gainesville, Florida. I work for a private security company. I am asking the American people to put pressure on the government to leave Iraq to help me and my friends to get out of here."
The four other hostages identified themselves and made similar statements. Reuben wore a tracksuit with orange shoulder stripes. "I'm 39 years old, or 40; I'm not quite sure of today's date," he said. "I'm from Buffalo, Minnesota. I'm married. I have twin daughters -- they're 16 -- and I have a stepson that's 16."
A second video, time-stamped Dec. 21 and Dec. 22, was released Jan. 3. The hostages again called for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Since then, prayer vigils have been held in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Gainesville and Clarence, N.Y., outside Buffalo.
In Gainesville, Sigma Phi Epsilon placed a 20-foot yellow ribbon on the front of its house.
In Redding, Calif., Josh Munns's new home deal fell through.
There has been no communication from the captors.
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