Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Death on the freeway: Eulogy for a former KBR-Iraq contractor

"When you were in Iraq, did you meet any contractors?" someone asked me recently. "What were they like? Were they scary?" No, not at all. They were nice. And helpful and efficient and friendly. But then I mostly only dealt with KBR contractors working on the administrative side of things. I never met any KBR contractors who were mercenaries. And I definitely never met any of those heavy-duty Blackwater guys.

One time I did spend the morning with a group of British bodyguards who looked like they might have been left over from "The Troubles" in Belfast and could snap your neck in a second, but they were just escorting around a group of civil engineers who were inspecting a health clinic. Nothing fierce.

"If you take a photo of us, we will have to destroy your camera," one of the bodyguards told me. But other than that, they also were quite nice.

However, like I said before, I didn't get a chance to see much of Iraq. The U.S. Army's CPIC [Combined Press Information Center] unit in Baghdad kept me pretty much away from combat zones when I was in Iraq during April and October of 2007. And when I kept asking them to send me to some of the dicier areas, they stopped letting me into Iraq at all. I guess they either didn't want me reporting back to my progressively-oriented editors regarding any blood-and-gore situations in Baghdad right before the 2008 presidential elections -- or else they figured it might look bad for "Bush's War" if something dire happened to me. "How could we possibly explain how a 65-year-old grandmother managed to get kidnapped or blown up?" But I digress.

I am here today to tell you the story of Dave Crow and to write his eulogy.

Dave was a well-built and beefy man, a carpenter who could lift 100-pound slabs of sheet-rock all day long and not break a sweat. But then he got lured overseas by all the easy money to be made as a contractor for KBR in Iraq.

"I was only over there for four months," he told me. "I was a truck driver for KBR. The money was good. But our camp was located over the site of a former depleted uranium dump and I got really sick. My body started just wasting away and now I'm weak, unhealthy, living in a trailer outside of San Diego and basically screwed up." He talked to me about his plans to sue KBR because they had reneged on their promise to provide him with healthcare when he came back from Iraq.

After he returned to the States, Dave's life went rapidly downhill. He lost weight. He was ill. He was in constant pain. His girlfriend left him. He drank. And then, apparently, he shot himself.

I was so sorry to hear that his life had ended this way.

One of Dave's friends sent me an article a few months ago. Dated September 29, 2007, the article said that on the previous Wednesday, Dave Crow had pulled over onto the side of a Southern California freeway and shot himself in the chest. Dave had commited suicide? I could understand that. The guy was frustrated and in pain. End of story.

But it wasn't the end of Dave's story. There was more to come. The other day, I ran into a friend of Dave's at a party and the friend started talking about Dave. "Several of the people who were close to Dave had given up on him right before he died," said his friend, "but it wasn't just because his health had bottomed out. It was because all he would ever talk about was how KBR had done him wrong. He was sick and in pain, sure, but he was also very sad, disillusioned and bitter -- that he would never again be the strong and healthy young man that he had been before going over to Iraq. All he could ever talk about were his losses and how KBR had promised to pay his medical expenses when he got back and how he was going to sue them. Some of his friends started avoiding him. It was hard to be around him. That was all that he could talk about."

And then Dave was found dead at the side of the freeway last fall. "At first I thought that he probably did shoot himself, " said his friend, "but then someone showed me his coroner's report and, frankly, it seemed sort of sketchy. Apparently Dave had been driving erratically on the freeway and then pulled off at an exit to buy gas or something in some town. And, according to the report, an off-duty police officer who had been driving his own personal car on the freeway had followed Dave off the freeway, followed him all through the town and then followed him back onto the freeway again. I think that Dave might have panicked about being followed by some strange unmarked car and tried to run."

According to Dave's friend, the coroner's report went on to say that the police became involved at some point and there was apparently a chase. then Dave swerved off the road and ran into some construction equipment. "The report then says that a police officer witnessed Dave shoot himself in the chest. Not in the head or the heart. In the chest."

Dave's friend was disappointed with the coroner's report. "It said that Dave was carrying a Glock firearm that was capable of holding 17 rounds but there were only three rounds left in the clip. That's strange. And the report didn't mention whether or not any shell casings had been found in the car. Why would Dave be carrying around a Glock with only three rounds? Had he been shooting at someone? Had they been shooting at him? And why would an off-duty policeman follow him all over town?"

Towards the end of the party, I had another chance to talk with Dave's friend again and the death of Dave Crow was still on his mind. "Having never done this sort of thing before -- questioning an official report -- I was hoping that you might know how to get the California Highway Patrol or someone to look into the events that led to Dave's death on the freeway in Azusa. For instance, is it standard procedure for an off-duty police officer to chase people that way? And if it is, does anyone think that maybe that's what started Dave running, and caused his ultimate 'suicide'?" Then Dave's friend looked pensive. "And does anyone even care? Maybe you can stir the pot or else that other journalist that interviewed Dave about KBR could check in to it. Or is there any other watch dog agency that oversees policy for the police that we could ask about this?" Dave's friend shrugged his shoulders.

"It's just that I'd like to have some sort of closure on my friend's death -- like some accounting of just what happened to him, and the answer to some of the basic questions. Did the bullet pulled from his body match the gun registered to him? And can a private citizen ask questions like I have, about a case that really isn't any of my business....other than that of 'no man is an island'? I know that Dave will still be dead either way of course. I just hate the idea that he might have been killed and someone out there somehow is getting away with it. That's all."

Perhaps there had been a shoot-out. Or perhaps Dave might have been paranoid enough to mistakenly think, when he was being followed for so long by an unmarked car, that KBR was going after him because of the lawsuit. Who knows? I certainly don't know. But there is one thing that I DO know: I know that I need to write an eulogy for David Crow. "I'm sorry, Dave, that your life ended this way -- sick and upset and bleeding to death alone on the side of some obscure California freeway. And I hope that now you are without pain and resting in a better place -- no matter what happened to you during your short life here on earth." Rest in peace, Dave. You deserve it.


Here's my OpEd News story on Dave from last year: Blackwater mercenaries, West Point graduates & other contractors' tales:
....When I was in Iraq, I brushed my teeth with the non-potable water. Having survived brushing my teeth with the tap water in Afghanistan and Mexico (with the help of some Cipro), I was thinking, "Who's afraid of a little bacteria?" Well, since I've been back, my mouth just hasn't felt right. OMG! Maybe the water was non-potable because it was filled with depleted uranium? Then I started getting really paranoid. "I'm gonna die of mouth cancer!" Me and Sigmund Freud. Yuck!
Then I got a phone call from a man who used to work as a trucker for KBR in Iraq and I realized that he had a LOT more to worry about than me. "I was only over there for four months but already my body has aged 30 years and my muscle mass is just melting away." KBR paid him $8,000 a month to drive the big rigs all over central Iraq. "And I'd give every cent of it back in a heartbeat if I could get my health back." Fat chance of that happening.
"After four months living in a tent pitched over an old bombed-out bunker, blood and pus started coming out of my eyes. It really scared me and I tried to get back to the states to get treated. But the moment I left Iraq, KBR canceled my health insurance. I used to be able to hang 160 sheets of drywall a day. Now I can hardly help the neighbors move their front room couch."
The contractor was very unhappy with KBR. "They promised me that I was going to get a COBRA but it never came through. I need an operation, I have severe nerve damage in my arms. I don't sleep because my hands and arms are so sore. I can take a lot of pain but this is constant. This is too much. If I ever get my hands on the KBR employee who canceled my insurance, they'd have to put me on four-way restraints!"
The contractor has lost three inches off of his biceps. What happened over there? Depleted uranium? "I wouldn't be surprised. Iraq is the most polluted country in the world. It scares the hell out of me." Then he added, "I think part of my nerve damage comes from wearing 56 pounds worth of body armor for 12 or 15 hours at a time because rather than up-armor the trucks, they up-armored the drivers."
He thought that the KBR operation was a circus run by buffoons. "They were only in it for the money." "Do you think you will ever go back to Iraq?" I asked him. "I can't go back. I'd never pass the physical." He then gave me the names and numbers of several friends who had suffered the same experience. Scary.