Iraq escort duty draws complaints

Riding shotgun for Kellogg Brown & Root is risky, some Missouri soldiers say.
Monday, May 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:28 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Members of a Missouri National Guard unit say guarding convoys for private contractors in Iraq puts them at greater risk than when they were hauling military supplies for the Army.

The 150-member 1221st Transportation Company has been reassigned from its hauling duties to providing security for convoys operated by defense contractor Kellog Brown & Root.

Sgt. Donald Curttright of Claycomo said the orders have members of the 1221st worried they’ll be spread so thin that they could be outgunned in a firefight.

“There might be 30 trucks, and we’ll have six or seven of us riding shotgun armed with M-16 (rifles),” Curttright said. “If we’re attacked, we’re expected to protect the whole thing. I don’t know how we’re supposed to do it.”

Gov. Bob Holden wrote a letter this month to President George Bush protesting the use of Missouri guardsmen as labor for a civilian contractor. Holden pointed out that the 1221st is a trucking company, not one trained 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 contractor’s 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 hauling supplies as a military unit. When helping KBR, he said, a half-dozen guards are spread among the contractor’s trucks according to the whims of the drivers.

When traveling as the 1221st, 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, he said, and the trucks are accompanied by gun trucks mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun.

Some guardsmen also are bitter that they’re protecting KBR drivers who make up to $80,000 a year, tax-free — significantly more than what the troops are paid for doing the same job.

“I’m proud they’re over there and proud they’re 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.”

Some lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon’s effort to use private contractors to perform critical support services for the military. KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., has about 24,000 workers in Iraq and Kuwait.

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