Iraq: KBR contractors weigh heavy risks

Publisher Name: 
Houston Chronicle

For more than a week, KBR officials have tried to prepare new hires like Michael Tovar, 29, for the risks they'll face as contractors in Iraq.

They've seen gut-wrenching photographs of the effects of chemical warfare on the human body, and they've been warned of the threat of death, kidnapping and torture.

But nothing could challenge their resolve more than this weekend's news that at least two contractors have been killed and seven more are missing in Iraq.

Four bodies were located Tuesday in Iraq, but Houston-based KBR said it couldn't confirm that they were its employees.

"I told myself that this kind of stuff is going to happen," said Tovar, who is originally from Houston but now lives in Lawton, Okla., with his wife, who is expecting the couple's first child. "It's a war zone."

Tovar admits that he's nervous about going to Iraq this weekend to begin his yearlong contracting job as a fuel distributor.

But the former truck driver weighed the risks long before last week, when he came to Houston for his background check, medical exam and safety course. Those were conducted at a former department store that's now a KBR processing center at Greenspoint Mall.

That's why he volunteered to work in the less risky position of distributing fuel instead of driving a truck, he said Tuesday. Several truck drivers have been ambushed in Iraq.

"I didn't want to go over there and drive," Tovar said. "That is the most dangerous job."

He decided to apply for a position in Iraq out of a sense of patriotic duty.

"The money doesn't hurt," he added, smiling.

With a baby on the way, he said he's considering her college education. KBR contractors work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for four months before they can take 10 days off. So contractors earn overtime and hazardous duty pay, which will be tens of thousands of dollars more than Tovar's annual truck-driving salary of between $30,000 and $40,000.

"I'm going out there making a better future for her anyway," he said. "I'll be back."

Clarence Fountain went and is back. But that is after witnessing the violence firsthand.

Fountain, a 37-year-old from Humble, is among a host of workers who have gone to the region and decided to return home. He left Iraq over the weekend on a military flight to Kuwait that also carried a pair of flag-draped coffins.

Fountain, who was working as a cargo document specialist, signed on with KBR in January. But he said he decided last Friday to put family before good money as attacks on contractors escalated.

Halliburton and KBR said in a statement that fewer than 1 percent of contractors have requested to return home; 24,000 of the company's workers are based in the region.

"KBR is resolved to stay the course and move forward with the logistical support to troops, the reconstruction effort and assisting the Iraqi people rebuild the country's oil infrastructure," the company said in a prepared statement.

Fountain said he was "straddling the fence" about staying before the latest round of violent incidents began anew.

In recent days he was keeping his wife updated about the situation by phone.

"I told her they are starting to attack us more frequently and that a suicide bomber blew himself up trying to infiltrate our north gate," he said. "About a week and a half ago, we had small arms fire take place at the guard gate."

The differing attitudes voiced by Tovar and Fountain also are indicative of what some companies that are considering doing business in Iraq are wrestling with.

The outbreak of violence has some Houston-based companies taking a wait-and-see approach, said Arif Ali, a partner with the Fulbright & Jaworski law firm.

The Houston-based firm has been advising a variety of companies during the past year regarding potential business opportunities in Iraq, he said.

"But the main things that our clients are concerned about are security concerns," Ali said. "It makes no sense to be talking about doing business when the people you would send to do business have no sense of security."

The companies likely will hold off making decisions until after the scheduled June 30 handover of the political reins to the new governing council in Iraq, Ali said.

That's if the violence is quelled and work in Iraq remains on track until that time.

Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR in a statement Wednesday called their workers in Iraq "courageous volunteers."

"They work alongside the troops in dangerous conditions, but Halliburton employees have also had to endure political derision from home," the statement said. "Every civilian working in Iraq needs and deserves support from Americans, particularly now."

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering