Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

TOP STORY >> Arkansas truck driver dodges bullets in Iraq

BY JAN COTTINGHAM
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Woman chronicles her time in the war zone as a civilian contractor, saying it was scary-going, but she’s ready to go back.

The first question one woman asks another who voluntarily goes to Iraq to work is, of course, Why?

Why would a feisty, blue-jeans-wearing American woman go to, of all places, the Middle East, of all places, Iraq, of all places, a war zone to drive trucks? Cindy Morgan, raised in DeWitt and a mother of three boys, answers that question with much more than the usual formula of “to support the troops,” though that was one of her reasons.

Morgan, pretty and feminine but with a tom-boy swagger, already had a career as a truck driver.

She took a truck-driving job in Iraq, as a civilian contractor conveying food and supplies to U.S. troops, partly to leave her hard-luck life be-hind, to escape an abusive husband, her third. While there, she found a reason for living, one that didn’t involve tolerating indifference, carelessness, stupidity, cruelty or dishonesty.

But she also learned a lesson she thinks a lot of Americans need to learn: What happens in the rest of the world matters here.

“Sitting here in the United States—you know we have it really good. And we see stuff over in countries like that and we say, ‘Oh, that’s not going to affect us.’ But in ways it does. … It’s like the old saying, There are six degrees of separation. It’s a small world when you really look at it, and everything affects everything else.”

Cynthia I. Morgan has written about her experiences in a new book, “Cindy in Iraq: A Civilian’s Year in the War Zone” (Free Press, $25.)

While in North Little Rock last week to promote the book, she sat down in the Books-a-Million café for an interview, some 7,000 miles and a culture away from war to discuss those experiences and why she decided to write about them. Her eldest son, Kenny, joined the Arkan-sas National Guard and later followed his mother to Iraq, where he was attached to the 39th Infantry Brigade and spent 10 months.

During her time in Iraq, Morgan kept an on-line journal that became particularly popular with the families of civilians working for private contractors supporting the troops. Her book stems from that journal, but she also wanted to present more than her personal experiences, which involved ambushes, seeing fellow truckers shot and taking shrapnel herself.

Morgan said that the American public needed to know about the vital, though extremely dangerous, work of civilians in supporting U.S. troops in the Iraqi war. And, she said, Americans need to know that good things have come of the U.S. presence in Iraq: A vicious dictator has been deposed, living conditions have improved, and many Iraqis, Morgan said, are grateful.

“We have done the right thing, no matter what the reason was,” Morgan said.

“When you see the people living like they did and you see firsthand what he [Saddam Hussein] did to the people who lived in his country, you just can’t help but know that we did the right thing. Granted, things are not great. We’re talking about an area of the world that has been fighting for 2,000 years, and it’s not going to stop overnight.

“But their living conditions in lots of places have gotten better. They’re getting clean, sanitary water and the trash isn’t everywhere, and the electricity grid is starting to get better so they don’t have power outages all the time. And their way of life is getting better. It’s still dangerous. I won’t deny that. There are still civilian Iraqis getting killed, unfortunately. But it is getting better.”

Morgan, however, expresses dismay at the U.S. public’s attitude toward civilian contractors working in Iraq.

“A lot of people think that we’re just a bunch of money-hungry mercenaries out there toting guns and killing civilians, when 99 percent of us aren’t allowed to carry a weapon,” she said.

“Unless you’re in security or you’re running private security in convoy escorts, you’re not allowed to carry a firearm. And we eat, we sleep right beside the soldiers. We run the convoys with them. We get shot at. We get killed beside them.

“There’s not enough money in this world to go play Russian roulette with your life,” she said. “They’re [private contractors] there for more than just some money. It’s God and country, and a lot of these guys are like I am. We were just too old to join the military after 9/11 and we wanted to serve our country.

“I had one reporter call us the ‘shadow army’ because we’re behind the scenes. Our military’s been cut back so much they can’t support themselves. We’re part of the largest contingent of civilian contractors we’ve ever had in a combat zone, and if it wasn’t for us, they [the troops] wouldn’t have a lot of the things they have. We rely on them for protection, and they rely on us for supplies.”

Asked how she was treated in the Middle East, Morgan acknowledged: “Being an American is a downside over there. Being a woman over there is a downside. You put the two together, and it’s like, oh, my gosh. It was scary going over just from the culture and everything you hear about that part of the world.” But working for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, helped shield her.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of dealings with the general public,” she said.

“We were staged out on the roads because a lot of the camps didn’t have big enough staging areas for all of the trucks. And we would get to meet the kids and some of the people that way, and that was our interaction with the locals.

“Some of them were rude, but if they were rude to me they were rude to the men as well,” Morgan said.

“And some of them were just as polite and respectful as they could be. And that really surprised me, especially when I became a CC [convoy commander], and we started having TCNs, third-country nationals, running with us.” The third-country nationals, also truck drivers employed by KBR, were from all over the Middle East and Asia, and many were Muslim.

“I was really afraid of how they would take having a woman tell them what to do and how to do this. But I walked in with, I guess you can say, an ‘attitude’ of ‘This is my job. This is what we’ve got to do.’ And whether I was totally sure of what I was doing or not, I presented the confidence that I was. These guys—it didn’t take long. They respected me and did what I asked them to do, even went out of their way. Made me tea, would ask me to come eat dinner with them.”

Sadly, while she was in Iraq, Morgan suffered more harm from a fellow American than from any Iraqi insurgents.

While in company-provided housing in Kuwait, she was sexually assaulted. The assailant wasn’t caught, and Morgan considered coming home. But a friend dissuaded her, saying, “You’ve let men dictate to you all of your life. Are you going to let this one? You’ve finally found something that you believe in, something that you are fulfilled by.” She decided to stay, ultimately spending a year in Iraq.

Morgan returned to private life in the United States, driving a truck. But she missed her work in the Middle East. She’s due to go back to Iraq July 24, as a camp manager for another private contractor, Houston-based Falcon SIS.

“It still gives me a chance to support the troops,” she said. “It makes my family feel a little bit easier than I’m not going to be outside the wire driving a truck. And you get used to that way of life.”

In her book, Morgan says that while in Iraq, she found her pride. As for the book itself:

“It’s my story. It’s a way to get to the American public what civilian contractors are doing over there and the fact that we’re side by side with the soldiers. There’s a lot of brave men over there—and women.”

Jan Cottingham is a freelance writer living in Little Rock.