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Staff Sgt. Charles Thomas in Iraq last year. Thomas, from the Ohio National Guard, recently volunteered to spend a second consecutive year in Iraq. “There are days I regret I volunteered,” he said. “They’re becoming more and more frequent.”
Staff Sgt. Charles Thomas in Iraq last year. Thomas, from the Ohio National Guard, recently volunteered to spend a second consecutive year in Iraq. “There are days I regret I volunteered,” he said. “They’re becoming more and more frequent.” (Courtesy of Charles Thomas)
Staff Sgt. Charles Thomas in Iraq last year. Thomas, from the Ohio National Guard, recently volunteered to spend a second consecutive year in Iraq. “There are days I regret I volunteered,” he said. “They’re becoming more and more frequent.”
Staff Sgt. Charles Thomas in Iraq last year. Thomas, from the Ohio National Guard, recently volunteered to spend a second consecutive year in Iraq. “There are days I regret I volunteered,” he said. “They’re becoming more and more frequent.” (Courtesy of Charles Thomas)
Scott Bowans says he’s had the time of his life over the past two years, even though most of that time has been spent on a dusty little corner of Camp Victory.
Scott Bowans says he’s had the time of his life over the past two years, even though most of that time has been spent on a dusty little corner of Camp Victory. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)
Michael Tuazon, from the Philippines, has hated his two years in Iraq and says he was paid far less than promised. But he signed up for another year with another company.
Michael Tuazon, from the Philippines, has hated his two years in Iraq and says he was paid far less than promised. But he signed up for another year with another company. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Iraq is hot most of the year, and dirty, dusty and dangerous most of the time. The usual comforts and pastimes — family, friends, “The Sopranos,” sports and beer — are elsewhere. So, most troops view their deployments as a duty, not a choice.

But for some soldiers and civilians, the secret is that Iraq is also, paradoxically, a respite.

All the dulling routines required in daily life — making dinner, doing laundry, paying bills, rearing children — are suspended. Life is stripped down to your job, your colleagues and seafood night at the dining facility.

One spring day, after a rain that left Camp Victory with standing pools of dirty water, a young captain carefully made her way over wooden planks to a fetid Porta-John. This sort of thing must get tiresome, someone remarked.

“Not really,” she said. “I’m going through a messy divorce at home. This is better, much better.”

And there are some who choose to stay not just one year, but two or even three. Some do it for the thrill, and the money. Some, to avoid what waits at home, and the money. And then there’s the money.

A contractor’s lifeScott Bowans’ whole universe is a dusty little corner of Camp Victory, down the road from the laundry and across the parking lot from the smaller chow hall. There, in Building 39, as KBR billeting supervisor, he assigns tents and trailers to the thousands of troops and civilians.

Bowans has been there for more than two years. He works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later, seven days a week. The 46-year-old Texan couldn’t be happier.

“This is my world right here,” he said. “I got it made.”

“I’ve gotten to do things I never would have done in the States. I’ve gotten to meet people I never would have met had I stayed in the States, and I’ve been to places I never would have been to had I stayed in the States.”

While working, Bowans has left Victory only once — to the International Zone.

“A five-minute helo ride,” he said, “which is probably the coolest thing I’ve done here.”

But during his paid leaves — 10 days, three times a year — he and his wife get around. In the past two years they’ve vacationed in Italy, Germany, the Philippines and Thailand.

Bowans and his wife both work for KBR. Having her with him — actually she got her job first — has made staying in Iraq easier.

The Bowanses had been living near Houston. She was the general manager of a Marriott hotel and he sold fine wine and champagne.

“I hated my job,” Bowans said. “She wasn’t too fond of hers, either.”

Now they’re more content, and solvent. Both pull down a six-figure salary they’re saving to build a house.

“I could be the guy working out on the generators in the 130-degree heat,” he said. “I got the best gig going.”

For the moneyMichael Tuazon left his home in the Philippines two years ago to work in Iraq and save money to build a house. And for the past two years, he has hated almost every day. Still, Tuazon has signed up for another year.

Until March, he worked for Prime Projects International, a subcontractor that provides thousands of workers from impoverished countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka to staff mess halls, clean bathrooms and do other manual labor.

Tuazon, 30, said he was told he’d be earning $2,800 a month. His pay turned out to be $600 a month.

“What are we going to do here? Just work, work, work,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen next.”

Unlike soldiers who live in tents with four or five others or two-man trailers, workers like Tuazon share trailers with 11 others.

“We’re like sardines, you know?” he said.

Tuazon misses everything about his home, he said: the weather, his family, his girlfriend. Despite his professed misery, when Tuazon’s contract ended in March, he signed up for another year with another company, AMECO, which he said was to pay him $1,800 a month as a mechanic.

Soldiers that stayStaff Sgt. Charles Thomas, an Ohio National Guardsman, spent a year living dangerously in Iraq doing engineering work with the 3rd Infantry Division. He brought his camera everywhere he went.

He has photographs he loves: “These are all my boys,” he says of one photo of his unit. “They all made it back with 10 fingers and 10 toes. I did my job.”

And he has photographs you don’t want to see: an Iraqi, still at the wheel of his car, though dead from a terrible gunshot wound to the head. Thomas experienced things that both delighted and disgusted him, and the excitement, he said, was “addictive.”

When it came time for him to resume his life in Ohio as a grocery store warehouseman, married man, father and grandfather of three, he found himself instead signing up to stay another year.

There was a tax-free cash bonus he might or might not get. Even if he didn’t get it, staying was “financially beneficial.”

His own unit, the 16th Engineer Brigade, that he’d been with for 20 years, was starting its own Iraq deployment. And finally, his new job would keep him relatively safe and usually within the confines of Camp Victory.

Now a couple of months into his second year, Thomas isn’t sure he’d made the right decision.

“Some aspects of it — it’s exhilarating and rewarding,” Thomas said. “It’s the camaraderie of being in the military. It’s hard to describe that feeling.”

But Thomas, 49, sometimes worries that the extra year might be pushing his luck.

“I lay in my bed every night, hoping and praying a mortar doesn’t land on my trailer.”

Migrated
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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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