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Members of a Missouri National Guard unit say guarding convoys for private contractors in Iraq puts them at much greater risk than when troops were hauling equipment, food and water for the Army themselves.
The 150-member 1221st Transportation Company has been reassigned from its hauling duties to providing security for convoys operated by defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) a subsidiary of Halliburton Co. which has about 24,000 workers in Iraq and Kuwait.
Formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Halliburton has contracts to do everything from providing meals and mail to troops to taking trucking equipment, food and water to bases the job the newly deemed "security" troops are trained to do.
Members of the 1221st were perplexed about what was gained in the new arrangement, because the new assignment forced them to let their own trucks sit idle. They also felt angry about being used as free labor for a highly profitable private defense contractor hauling the same types of supplies.
Most importantly, Sgt. Donald Curttright said the orders have members of the 1221st worried theyll be spread so thin that they could be easily outgunned in a firefight.
"There might be 30 trucks, and well have six or seven of us riding shotgun armed with M-16s," Curttright said. "If were attacked, were expected to protect the whole thing. I dont know how were supposed to do it."
Gov. Bob Holden wrote a letter this month to President George W. Bush protesting the use of Missouri guardsmen as labor for a civilian contractor. Holden pointed out that the 1221st is trained as a trucking company, not for security or military police duty.
Maj. Richard Spiegel, a spokesman for the 13th Corps Support Command in Iraq, downplayed the controversy. He said only a small number of soldiers had been assigned three or four times to ride in the contractors trucks. Besides, he said, Kellog Brown & Root employees are considered civilian partners of the military. "Our civilian contractors work side by side with us, under the same difficult and dangerous conditions, to accomplish the logistics mission," Spiegel said in an e-mail response to questions from The Kansas City Star.
But Curttright said riding shotgun for the contractor was more dangerous than merely hauling supplies as a solely military unit. When helping KBR, he said, a half-dozen guards are spread among the contractors trucks according to the whims KBR's drivers.
This contrasts sharply with what happens when the 1221st hauls supplies themselves. When KBR is out of the picture, each truck has a driver and an assistant driver armed with M-16s, he said. About half of the trucks have additional armor on the doors to stop shrapnel or weapons fire, and the trucks are accompanied by gun trucks mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun.
Some guardsmen also are bitter that theyre protecting KBR drivers who make up to $80,000 a year, tax-free significantly more than the troops are paid for doing the same job.
"Im proud theyre over there and proud theyre fighting for our freedom," said Shelly Smith, wife of 1221st member Sgt. Chad Smith. "But they can see how much KBR (employees are) making, and we're making peanuts."
Curttright said the assignments to guard the private trucks began about the time that attacks on the firm's convoys picked up and seemed to stem from Kellogg Brown & Root drivers quitting. Most members of the unit blame the contractor for the recent extension of the units tour of duty from 12 months to 15 months. "I think we got extended so KBR can keep on running," he said.
Some lawmakers also have criticized the Pentagons effort to use private contractors to perform critical support services for the military.