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Life can be harrowing for 70,000 civilian workers in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Shane "Nitro" Ratliff often flails as he sleeps. In his dreams, he's still in Iraq, fighting for his life.

During his five months in Iraq, Ratliff, a former sheriff's deputy who quit for the big bucks as a civilian truck driver, saw an improvised explosive turn another driver into "hamburger meat." He watched as a driver just in front of him use a hammer to fight off a knife wielding Iraqi attacker. Ratliff's truck was shot at, pelted with bricks, rocks and homemade bombs. He ran over spikes designed to puncture trucks' tires and strand their drivers from their armed escorts. He worried what Iraqis would do to him if he were captured.

In February, he returned home to Ruby, S.C., where he is on medication for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"It ain't worth it," Ratliff, who worked for Halliburton's Kellogg Brown & Root, said Friday. "Not the stuff you'd see and the way you had to live."

Life can be harrowing at times for some of the 70,000 or so civilian workers in Iraq. Their numbers are not really known, their casualties usually not reported, although at least 39 have been killed. Many of them went to Iraq to earn giant paychecks, which they could get tax-free if they stay abroad for a year. Some don't make it a year and come back scared and scarred. Others tell of the good they feel that they are doing, while living in such a troubled place.

"Twenty years ago, we went to war without contractors going with us," said Gen. Darryl A. Scott, head of Defense Contract Management Agency. "Now we can't go to war without (civilian) contractors."

The civilian contractors often are just like the soldiers they work beside, except they don't wear military uniforms, can't carry a gun to protect themselves, and work for private companies instead of Uncle Sam. Just as soldiers have war stories, so do civilian contractors. Here are some of them:

David Stokes was sure the message he left on his answering machine back in Charlotte, N.C., would be the last his family would ever hear from him.

"I just wanted to call and let you know that if this doesn't work out, I love you and Olivia and McCarver," he said from his Iraqi compound in Kut, which was about to be overrun by insurgents. "Take care. I love you."

Stokes, 32, had lost his sales job when his company restructured last year. The lure of a more than $80,000 salary was beckoning. The first time he talked it over with his wife, Clara, she told him it wasn't worth it. It seemed too risky and too far. He agreed.

But a week or so later, he woke up out of a sound sleep and realized he needed to go. It was a calling, he said. Clara said she understood. He was sent last fall to Kut in southern Iraq, where he supervised support services for Kellogg Brown & Root.

The attack came on the morning of April 6, after days of simmering tensions. Most of the Iraqis who worked in the compound knew better and had stayed away.

About 300 Iraqis attacked, while 30 Ukrainian and civilian guards tried to fight them off. The siege lasted much of the day. More than 100 mortars and shells rained into the compound. Stokes and his friends burned and shredded documents, made satellite calls and sent e-mails for help.

Someone nicknamed their compound "Al Kut Alamo."

At 10 p.m., the head of the civilian security force, a former special operations commando, asked Stokes if he had called home to say goodbye. Stokes hadn't, thinking things weren't that dire. Chillingly, the former commando said he had just hung up with his wife. So Stokes placed his call home to his wife, 4-year-old daughter, and 3-month-old son.

He got the machine. Clara was working at a local charity at the time. She got the message 10 minutes after her husband hung up, but couldn't reach him. All she could do was pray. So did he.

At 1:30 a.m., two U.S. Apache helicopters showed up to answer their prayers. The attackers fled. David Stokes survived and on April 21 returned to a home in Charlotte covered with yellow balloons and ribbons.

Jody Deatherage, 44, of Llano, Tex., wasn't so lucky.

A former police officer turned truck driver, Deatherage, his younger brother and father all headed off to Iraq last fall to drive trucks for KBR and to pay off piles of bills. His wife Sandy also said: "He liked the fact that he was able to help his country."

Sandy worried, but she was used to it: "He was a cop for so many years ... I had the mentality that nothing's going to happen to us."

After a few calm months, attacks kept getting closer to Jody's truck. He called home on Jan. 18. He was more worried.

On Jan. 21, after an Iraqi dump truck tried to break into the KBR convoy, a second truck managed to get through. It smashed head-on into Jody Deatherage's truck. He was killed, leaving Sandy, their 18-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

The family got $50,000 in insurance, $25,000 for his death and another $25,000 because it was in an accident.

"I would gladly give everything back just to have him back," Sandy Deatherage said.

Another truck driver, Mike Stroud of Bellingham, Wash., was hit twice by explosives attacks. But it wasn't the fear that bothered him. It was the weather. For most of the seven months he spent in Iraq, he lived in tents in Camps Anaconda and Cedar.

"Last winter, it was hell," Stroud said. "First it was the heat, then the dust and then came the rains. And it turned it all into a nightmare. It was just like the ultimate camping trip gone wrong."

Some civilian workers said they liked working in Iraq because they knew they were doing some good, despite the trying circumstances.

"Eighty to 85 percent of the Iraqi people want us to help. They're so optimistic," said a 44-year-old Chicago public finance specialist working with an Iraqi local government for Research Triangle Institute. "And those are the people I'm working with and they're the ones who keep me going."

The woman, whose company asked that her name and location in Iraq be withheld for security reasons, said life in Iraq does taking getting used to. Outside the compound, she dresses like Iraqi women in a robe called an abaya and head-covering.

Lee Medina, 42, of Fort Bragg, N.C., returned from Iraq last week, where he has been a maintenance manager for ManTech, a firm that helps the Army with its battlefield communications system. He came home because he lost 20 pounds and needs to gain them back so he could return to a job he relishes in Iraq.

Medina lost the weight from long hours, physical labor, poor food and stress. Lots of stress.

"You are basically in danger as soon as you cross the border into Iraq," Medina said Friday. Whenever he traveled, a constant "feeling of uneasiness" made him scan roads for threats instead of take in the scenery like a tourist.

Medina was used to this. He had been an Army communications specialist and had worked as private contractor in war zones before, especially in the Balkans. But Iraq is different. It is scarier, he said—"the most challenging." It also is more worthwhile.

"I think I'm really contributing," he said. "I think my being there and my employees being there actually make a difference."

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(Dodd reports for the Charlotte Observer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CIVILIANS

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