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KAI RYSSDAL: Professor Schooner gave us some rough numbers of how many contractors there are in Iraq, armed and unarmed. The government says there are about 190,000 all told, supporting 163,000 U.S. troops — all of whom, at some point, made the choice to be there.
Andrew Haeg has the story of two of them — one civilian, one military.
ANDREW HAEG: Thirty-six-year-old Navy sailor John Shelton spent a year in Iraq working with the Army, using radio waves to disable roadside bombs. It was a hot, dusty, high-risk job. And for that he earned his military pay of about $40,000 a year.
He was surprised when he got there to see so many civilians, doing laundry, fixing generators and cleaning port-a-potties. Some made a fraction of his salary. But the better-paid made two or three times what Shelton did — and, as he says, didn’t take half the risk. And they boasted about it.
Sometimes bitterness would get the best of him. So he’d ambush unsuspecting contractors eating alone in the dining hall.
JOHN SHELTON: I’d sit down in front of him with my tray of food and say something like “So what do you do over here?” He’d tell me about his little civilian job and what he was doing. And I’d say something along the lines of “Well these soldiers are pretty antagonistic toward you, do you catch a lot of crap from them?” And then they’ll just wrap themselves in the flag. And then you’d ask them: “Would you still do this if you were getting paid as little as I am?” They kind of hem and haw about it. Then I’d go in for the kill — I’d say: “I really can’t fool you. I can’t f****** stand civilians. Get the f*** off this table.”
Shelton resented that soldiers had to protect contractors, but contractors were free to go home whenever they wanted. And then there was the money.
SHELTON: That produces a lot of animosity between civilians and the military. It even got to the point where civilians were ordered not to disclose how much they were being paid.
ANDREW HERBERT: His comments are not far from the truth.
Andrew Herbert is a former Army Ranger who’s spent the last four years in Kuwait and Iraq working as a combat trainer for contractor MPRI.
He’d retired from the military in 2003 with a pension of about $40,000 a year. He took a civilian job for a lot less than his military pay.
Even with his wife Patty’s salary as a nurse, they couldn’t erase debt they took on to successfully battle Patty’s breast cancer in the mid-’90s.
HERBERT: A lot of other things happened that ate up a lot of our money at the time. We had $40K in credit card debt, had a $40K equity on the home. We were just getting further in debt.
Herbert wanted out — out of debt, and out of civilian life. In November he ran into a former Ranger turned contractor at a meeting near his home in Dahlonega, Georgia.
HERBERT: He was like “Hey Herb, you need to this, this is a good ticket.” I was like “No, I played that game. I’m done traveling the world. OK how much you making.” He gave me the figure and I said: “Who’s your recruiter?”
Two weeks later he was in Kuwait earning about $100,000 a year. His pay bumped 50 percent when he went to Iraq — all tax free. There he found many like him — former military, heavily in debt. Like them, he was rolling the dice for a fast, fat way out of financial hardship. Maybe even something more, for a better lifestyle.
Patty Herbert shows me their new air-conditioned trailer. They paid cash for it recently. And they’ll use it to tow their two Harley Davidsons behind their Ford F350, to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.
PATTY HERBERT: I don’t think that we would be able to do any of this if he wasn’t doing what he was doing. It enables us not to pinch pennies, and enables us to take vacations — and not just to visit family, which was the type of vacation that we took in the military because that was the economical thing to do.
John Shelton, his wife and three kids are a penny-pinching military family like the Herberts used to be. For vacation, the Sheltons are staying with in-laws in Akron, Ohio — a stop on the way to their new post in Pensacola, Florida. They’ve packed much of their life into a beat-up older pickup and a caravan, towing behind a 1970s Volkswagen… plus two cats, a dog and two parakeets. And bits of several pet projects Shelton’s working on to save money and gas. Like retrofitting the Volkswagen to battery power.
SHELTON: You just pull the motor out and you get a special plate that you mount a DC motor on and it bolts right to the transmission.
And he’s built an aerodynamic cover for the bed of his pickup truck to reduce drag and improve mileage. These are the kinds of things Shelton does to make ends meet. After all, even with the benefits, Heather Shelton says military pay doesn’t add up to much.
HEATHER SHELTON: You get medical, you get dental… You either get put in housing or you get a housing allowance. Still, even with all of those so-called extras, you’re supporting a family of five on under $50,000 a year.
So why, then, doesn’t John Shelton become a contractor? To start, Shelton says he wants the opportunities the military provides to become a leader and a mentor. Then there’s the pension — when he’s eligible to retire in seven years, he’ll get half his base pay in pension plus an annual cost of living increase. The Sheltons are willing to make do without much money.
And, for now, the Herberts are willing to accept Andrew’s absence for a life free of financial stress.
In Dahlonega, Georgia and Akron, Ohio, I’m Andrew Haeg for Marketplace.