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Private contractors are America's shadow army in Iraq, essential, but often forgotten. Among the most vulnerable are civilian truck drivers, who navigate the most dangerous roads in the world, delivering everything from meals to mail to bullets to port-a-potties.

The truckers face ambushes unarmed. At least 63 of them have died. Twenty-four were Americans, the rest, third country nationals. Some say their employer, KBR, should have done more to protect them.

In the first of two stories, NPR's John Burnett reports on the Trucker's War.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Imagine yourself in the cab of a truck bouncing along a highway in Iraq. Palm trees and dung-colored houses whiz past. Children run out to beg. Men in white dishdashas and red headscarves with hostile faces watch you pass.

This is a sound montage taken from videos shot by truck drivers in Iraq.

(Soundbite of video clip)

Unidentified Man #1: Go west, go west, we got a dead donkey on the right side.

BURNETT: You swerve to miss a donkey carcass, it could be booby-trapped. Suddenly, a familiar sound.

(Soundbite of machine gun)

Unidentified Man #1: We're taking heavy fire, heavy machine gun fire.

BURNETT: You hope the soldiers in the Humvees escorting your convoy shoot back. You pray the flak vest you're wearing stops an AK round because the truck you're driving is not armored. And above all, you think, don't stop. There are bad guys out there who want to pull you out and cut your head off.

Then, a sharp concussion, black smoke, chaos.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: Goddamn! IED on the left side.

BURNETT: To amend the old saying about foxholes, there are no atheists driving trucks in Iraq.

Unidentified Man: Jesus Christ, help us all, Lord.

BURNETT: It's another day on the job of a truck driver for Operation Iraqi Freedom. In order, drivers Scott Hodges, Michael Vick and Billy Garsee.

Mr. SCOTT HODGES (Truck driver in Iraq): It's such an unusual type of job. For the people that do it and are successful at it, there's a real brotherhood there.

Mr. MICHAEL VICK (Truck Driver in Iraq): Rock throwing, they can hit inside your cab while you're moving at 50 miles an hour. These children are magnificent. I mean, I said, y'all can make a million dollars on the baseball field.

Mr. BILLY GARSEE (Truck Driver in Iraq): We would get every convoy we'd pull out on would get rocked or shot at or something. There was always some kind of conflict going on on every convoy. The good Lord saw fit to bring me home alive one time. I'm not going to contest him a second time.

BURNETT: Thirty former drivers and a few current ones were interviewed for this story. Each with his own nickname: Rubber Duck, Smoky Joe, Poncho, Pops, Boozer, Scout, Big Money, Tanker, Wolf Pack and Rawhide. All of them worked for the war's biggest contractor, Houston-based KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Austin Dunn was a 55-year-old professional truck driver down on his luck in Houston when he decided to have his last adventure.

Mr. AUSTIN DUNN (Truck Driver in Iraq): Of course, the first time you call KBR about an employment over there, the very first thing the guy told me, the recruiter says, how would you like to make $100,000 a year? Well, I just lost my job here in Houston and my wife and I were struggling, you know, we were living in a little one-bedroom apartment. Didn't have anything. And soon as he said that $100,000, I mean, I'm just like the other guys, set the hook.

BURNETT: They signed up to pay off houses, pickup trucks, hospital bills, credit card bills and ex-wives. But not all of them had dollar signs in their eyes, says Jim Bob Murray, a former rodeo cowboy and driver in Luling, Texas.

Mr. JIM BOB MURRAY (Truck Driver in Iraq): I went over there just to help the troops, it wasn't about the money. I got too old to enlist and I wanted to be able to, I guess, show my patriotism or be able to do something for them.

BURNETT: KBR has 700 trucks rolling across Iraqi on any given day, making it the equivalent of one of the largest U.S. trucking companies. The need for drivers is constant because the turnover is so high. Despite a no-nonsense orientation in Houston, some drivers still didn't understand what they're getting themselves into, says former Convoy Commander Roger Dixon of Stamford, Texas.

Mr. ROGER DIXON (Former Convoy Commander): I'd see some guys who'd come over thinking that it's just fun and games and they'd go on one mission and that'd be the last mission. They'd come back home. And then some people would get off the airplane and see how hot it was and go right back, 135 in the shade. It was real hot.

BURNETT: Few drivers complained about life inside camp. For instance, Camp Anaconda, 42 miles north of Baghdad, has air-conditioned rooms, a swimming pool and movie theater and meal choices from pizza to cheeseburgers. The biggest complaint is when they go outside the wire, when they leave camp on a convoy mission.

Mr. TERRY STEWARD (Truck Driver in Iraq): The armor in the KBR trucks was not adequate to protect us at all.

BURNETT: Terry Steward of Weiser, Idaho, almost died from gunshot wounds last year on September 20, when his convoy drove into an ambush. Three drivers were killed. Steward believes most of the bloodshed could have been avoided that day if the trucks had been bulletproofed.

Mr. STEWARD: The issue of inadequate armor had been brought up by me and other people to KBR. We needed something done.

BURNETT: Scores of drivers told NPR they frequently raised the issue of inadequate armor to KBR managers. After one soldier pointedly questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld two years ago about similar vulnerabilities with Humvees, the military moved aggressively to armor its vehicles.

KBR trucks have lagged far behind, says Mark Overcash, who drove flatbeds for the company until last September. He's a pony-tailed, 300-pounder from San Leon, Texas, with a yellow rose tattooed on his bicep.

Mr. MARK OVERCASH (Truck Driver in Iraq): If you didn't have on armor on a truck, you'd try to scrounge you up something to put in there. Get some more metal in between you and the outside. You just had to scavenge cause they didn't, for some reason KBR didn't think it was necessary for everybody to have armor.

BURNETT: KBR has tried various fixes. It purchased Kevlar shields that slip into door panels, retro fitted windshields with shatterproof Mylar and outfitted truck cabs with ballistic blankets, which may or may not slow down bullets and shrapnel. But not all trucks have these features.

The company, in an e-mail response to NPR, explained that it continues to search for solutions, but the civilian Mercedes and Volvo trucks it purchases for Iraq are not easily armored. "It has proven difficult and extremely time-intensive to locate and procure the equipment needed to retrofit the cabs with up-armor protection."

Austin Dunn said the truckers might have been more understanding if it weren't for the fleets of luxury SUVs that KBR brought in for other employees.

Mr. DUNN: What in the world do you need a big $55,000 Ford Excursion for one guy to drive from his office to the PX to the chow hall back to his office? It's just amazing the kind of money they were wasting. But you know, they could've been using that money to armor plate our trucks.

BURNETT: And it wasn't just the fact that the soft skin trucks were death traps, it's what happened to truckers when they complained to KBR management.

Mr. JIM BOB MURRAY (Trick Driver in Iraq): Hey, if you don't like your job, Houston has 500 more drivers waiting to take your spot. You can go home. Chicken or pasta, (unintelligible).

BURNETT: After 15 months driving a truck for KBR, Jim Bob Murray finally did take a plane home. He says too many of his friends were getting killed and he didn't like the way the company treated its drivers.

Mr. MURRAY: The nickname we had for KBR was Kill Them, Bag Them and Replace Them.

BURNETT: That's pretty harsh.

Mr. MURRAY: Yes, sir. There was quite a few drivers that whenever you asked what KBR stood for, that was the answer you would get back.

BURNETT: KBR said in its statement that "all personnel are treated with dignity and respect and they may return home if they become uncomfortable with the work they're performing."

The company has erected a memorial wall to fallen truckers inside the KBR facility at Camp Anaconda. One of the names inscribed on that wall is Sasha Grenner Case(ph), 32, a Florida-based trucker who was killed by insurgents in the September 20 ambush. His widow, Karen, lives in a mobile home park in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Mrs. KAREN GRENNER CASE (Wife of killed contractor): Somebody asked what happened to your husband, I say, well, you know he got killed in Iraq. Well, he's military. I'm like, no, he wasn't military. He was a contractor. They're not appreciated because nobody knows about them. And it's sad that the United States doesn't even realize all these guys are in such terrible danger.

BURNETT: Songwriter Steve Earl has written a musical tribute to truck drivers in Iraq. It's titled Home to Houston.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Home to Houston)

NORRIS: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll hear about injured drivers who return home and are forgotten. For a trucker's eye view of Iraq and more interviews with former KBR truckers, go to our website, NPR.org.

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