How’s Business: M.

Project manager, DynCorp International, Kandahar, Afghanistan

Ramrod is a small military base at the edge of the Red Desert in Kandahar. Not a village in sight, just sand to every horizon. M., a young project manager for DynCorp International, sat with me in her office and bunk, the inside of a small white shipping container. The base is expanding every day.

I got into contracting by accident. I knew a guy at flight school in Colorado — he got a job with KBR Inc. And he was like, “You need to get on this, they’re hiring over a thousand people a week. It’s not difficult work, it’s just Iraq and Afghanistan. You can stop worrying about holding down four different jobs to pay for flight school.” I was like, “I’m in.” I never questioned it. My only concern was my parents’ reaction, because I’m an only child. But the danger never even entered my mind. I don’t know why, it just never did. I had lunch with my dad, and he thought it was a great idea. [Laughter] A week later, I had all my bank accounts closed, all my bills taken care of. I was ready to go. This was in 2004.

I saw it as another adventure, a way of escaping. When I was a kid, my dad worked in the oil industry, so he would travel to all these really exotic places in the Middle East and bring home all this really neat stuff. And I’d be like, “What the hell is this? I mean, it’s really shiny and cool, but what is it?” I was obsessed with the rest of the world, and I had never seen anything.

So I went off to spend one year in Iraq, and that one year turned into five.

My first job was with KBR, working at a gym. I hated that job. The only good thing about it was getting to know the Iraqi laborers — they would bring in extra food for lunch, and I would sit on the floor and eat with them. After a year, I switched to Fluor Corporation. I was in their training department, doing administrative stuff, and they were doing construction for power plants and wastewater treatment plants. It was a huge contract. They had seventeen different sites all over Iraq — a million dollars to fix up each facility. That was a cool experience, because I was working in admin and got to meet all the site managers. They would come to the Green Zone. We created a facility where we would simulate having pipe leaks and stuff. So we would put them through a training course, pay them a per diem, and go to their graduations. It was just really neat.

When Fluor’s contract was up, I came back to the States and started working for Jeppesen, an aviation company. They basically have a monopoly on providing navigational data in the aviation world. I did that for a year. I really liked my job; they were very attentive to their employees. But I was just itching to go back. It wasn’t the money, though at Jeppesen I was grossing $30,000, and in Iraq I was getting $130,000, $140,000, much of it tax-free.

I haven’t saved as much as I would have liked. Being young and stupid, I’ve spent a lot of what I’ve made. When I first started working, I was really obsessed with jewelry and diamonds and stuff. And I’ve traveled all over. I’ve been to New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, Italy a few times, France a few times, Germany, Ireland, England, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece.

In 2007, I went back to Iraq to work for Blackwater. My first day back in Baghdad, there was a rocket inside the camp, one container over from mine. It just tore a guy up upstairs, took out chunks of his brain. I never hit the floor faster in my whole life! I was on adrenaline for the rest of the week. I couldn’t sleep for days. Even when I could, I slept on the floor. I was like, “Wow, what am I doing here?” I couldn’t answer that question. But I knew I didn’t want to go home.

As much as it is Groundhog Day, you hear the helicopters go around, and you hear the mortar rounds go off — it keeps you real, it really does. Of all the people I’ve met, only two have died. One was killed by a sniper on a security team. Another was a lady who was working for a colonel. She had just returned from R&R, and she was so excited to be back, and the next day she was gone — she was in the embassy, and a rocket just came in.

After Blackwater I went to Sabre, a British security company, providing project management support on their international relief and development contract. Then Sabre lost their contract as well, and I came back home and looked for work. I was unemployed for almost a year. I started out looking for the kind of work I’d been doing, project management support. Later I was so desperate, I tried to get a job as a secretary. I couldn’t even get one of those. I didn’t really have a lot of options in the States. Back there you’re competing with people in high school during the summer and people fresh out of college with all these certificates. My experience in college was… working in Iraq. As valuable as I think my experiences are, they don’t mean anything back home. In the States, they want to see you work for a company for three, four, five years, put in the time. In the contracting world, contracts come and go. My resume looks like I’ve jumped all over the place.

So I ended up working at Starbucks. Of course, it didn’t pay anything, and I worked harder than I ever have in my life. But I had two mortgages, and I had to pay my bills. I had to take money out of my savings just to get by.

I got my current job at DynCorp almost by accident. I had a friend who had worked at Blackwater with me, and we both wanted to go back over. She went to a job fair in North Carolina, and she called me and said, “Give this guy a call, he’s a real nice guy.” So I did, and I had a job just like that.

I am in charge of MWR: Management, Wellness, and Recreation. Anything that we can do to boost people’s morale and take their minds off of what they are doing. Because it sucks being out here — you are away from your home, your girlfriends, your friends and family. Being a contractor is very lonely. So, anything you can do to bring a smile to their face.

My last boyfriend worked in Iraq. It’s funny, because we were both with Blackwater at the same time but didn’t know each other — I messaged him on Facebook because we had so many mutual friends. He’s from Utah, and I’m from Colorado, and we’re both really into skiing and snowboarding, so I asked him out and we hit it off. This was when I was unemployed. We would take trips when he had R&R — we spent a month in the Dominican Republic, we went kiteboarding, we took a cruise with his brothers. Then on our last trip, out of nowhere, he just broke up with me. I don’t even know what happened.

Not to be stereotypical, but when you have military guys who come into contracting, something’s not right. Committing to real life — they don’t know what that is. They think their jobs are going to last forever. They are living the dream and they are going to ride it out until the wheels fall off. That’s all they know.

That’s not what I’m doing, though I realize it looks that way. I’m just really interested in contracting and project management and logistical support, that sort of thing. And I know that I’m never going to get anywhere in the States.

I am so over that situation. I don’t want to go back. And I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything. The way that our economy is going, it concerns me. I don’t want to raise kids in the US — I just don’t. So that’s what I’m here to do, to set my life straight.