September 18, 2004

In the Desert, Wrecks Tell of Those Who Don't Wear a Uniform but Die Too


New York Times

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait, Sept. 12 - In a stinging, gusting sandstorm, a door on a huge charred truck creaked open and slammed shut again and again, as if the driver were still trying to escape before catastrophe struck. Nearby, the sand whistled through a bullet-riddled sport utility vehicle sitting on its twisted hubs in the desert.

Hundreds of bombed-out, smashed, machine-gunned and otherwise damaged trucks, flatbed trailers, fuel tankers and S.U.V.'s sat here in row after row. This spot in a corner of an American Army base has become a bleak but powerful impromptu memorial to those who have been wounded and killed in a part of the conflict in Iraq that has remained mostly in the shadows: the civilians who deliver mundane things like ice, mail, drinking water, food and spare parts to the much more visible American-led military force.

The yard was supposed to function merely as a place for contractors to pick up disabled vehicles that have been recovered in an American-financed operation to keep supply routes clear across Iraq. Now it has become a destination for visitors, especially along its western edge, where the most heavily damaged trucks sit in a ragged line.

There, the scars on the steel and sheet metal plainly reveal the type of attack - gashes from the shrapnel of a roadside bomb, punctures from small-arms fire, and incinerated interiors from fires.

Those stark views attract curious and sympathetic people to the place that most know as the Boneyard and others as Truckville. The collection has even a curator of sorts, a former truck driver from Houston named Noel Bridges who works for Kellogg Brown & Root, the subsidiary of Halliburton that carries out the recovery operation and has a huge, and often criticized, contract with the military to deliver supplies of various kinds.

Lately, Mr. Bridges said, the visitors and well-wishers, at least those who can negotiate the heavy security at the base, keep coming to the Boneyard. "We try to keep them out, but it's constant," he said.

Just after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the parallel with spontaneous memorials involving crushed remnants of firetrucks and other emergency vehicles is obvious. The terrible scars instantly call up the sounds and smells and emotions of the disaster and turn the mind toward its victims. With the American military in Iraq relying on nonuniformed contractors more heavily than ever before, the question of whether they deserve to be memorialized as movingly and permanently as soldiers has become more pointed.

Thousands of private security contractors have taken jobs that traditionally belonged to the military, and probably dozens - the number is not even tracked by officials - have died in roles that some have called little short of mercenary. But other contract workers - truck drivers and porters, especially - have been hit particularly hard by the violence.

Kellogg Brown & Root alone has lost 46 employees in the conflict over all, including 16 truckers. Over just two days during the height of the insurgency in April, 211 of its trucks were damaged or destroyed in attacks, seven of its truckers were killed and two more are still missing, said Keith Richard, who is regional project manager for the company's transportation mission and who recently defended the company's execution of its contract in testimony on Capitol Hill.

In the clawing sandstorm, Mr. Richard wandered from hulk to hulk as if among familiar tombstones, reluctant to stay long in any one place. "It's my guys," he said, his voice thin in the wind. "These are my guys."

Somewhere in the middle of the Boneyard were the remains of a red and white truck, the structure of its cab so compromised that a heavy orange strap encircled it for support. The first of the company's drivers to die in Iraq, in August 2003, had been in there when an improvised bomb went off. Now, in the Kuwaiti desert, the driver's side was mostly blown away, gashes in the roof showing that shrapnel had flown straight though the cab and that much of the interior had collapsed onto the floor.

The crumpled S.U.V., moaning and whistling in the sandstorm, had been hit first with a bomb and then the gunfire that put 11 holes in the hood and a few more in the roof. The driver was killed, the passenger injured. Flames consumed everything inside that was not made of metal. Not all of these terrible casualties belonged to American companies, and Arabic names ran across some of the mangled sheet metal. Al Ghazi Transportation. Al Shurei. Al Nabih.

Mr. Richard, seemingly both moved and appalled by these artifacts of death, said he would not be in favor of turning the Boneyard into a permanent memorial. "I certainly don't need to see this every day," he said.

But Mr. Bridges, who keeps track of the inventory here, said that even camels came out of the desert, nosing curiously around the trucks as if wondering why they were there. He said the trucks would be there only until the United States government decided what to do with them.

"From what I've seen of the way the government works," Mr. Bridges said, "it'll be a very long time."