Levi in Ten
By Abbie Hurewitz

Levi was sweet and soft spoken. At 22, he didn't yet have a college degree and expressed remorse that he didn't get one online like many of the other soldiers at his base in Iraq. He laughed quietly telling stories of his platoon and cried when talking about the 8 year-old girl who became his pen-pal through booksforsoldiers.com. She called him her soldier hero, and he surprised her with a visit when he returned to the states last March. He took her to Disneyworld and visited her second grade class. That weekend was one of the greatest of his life.

Levi said that once you join the military, you never leave it behind, it's always a part of your life. He was optimistic for his return to Iraq.

He said that pretty much everyone knew that contractors made higher salaries than they did. It's part of the rumor mill on the base: one day you'd hear that a contractor from one company makes one amount, and the next day you'd find out that a different contractor working for a different company makes even more. He professed strong opposition to the fact that contractors got paid more than soldiers for doing similar work, especially when soldiers were over there fighting, risking their lives.

Towards the end of April we began contacting soldiers to learn more about their experiences with contractors in Iraq. Through online research we found soldiers who had publicly opposed the war, and we wanted to go a step beyond and reach those who were not vocal critics. To help with outreach, we brought on Camilo Mieja who had served in Iraq and therefore could cast the net further through his personal connections.

With Camilo's help, the stories we found were pretty incredible.

Abbie Hurewitz

Soldiers had been getting violently ill from the water at their bases. Many said their living conditions were intolerable, sometimes with nothing substantial to eat for weeks, while three miles down the road contractors dined on lobster and stayed at five star luxury resorts. We were even told that one soldier's platoon got so sick of eating the exact same meal for months on end, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they resorted to killing live game for a change of taste.

There were entire platoons that spent the duration of their tours on "shooter missions," riding in KBR trucks protecting the drivers who were not allowed to bear arms (I thought civilians were in Iraq to free up troops for combat?). A former lieutenant said she was tasked with training a contractor who, once he was adequately trained, proceeded to take over her job.

One night Camilo called to tell me about someone in Texas I might want to speak with. He would be leaving for Iraq that Sunday and our only chance to interview him would be the following day. So I called to find out his story. His name was Levi.

Levi joined the military at 17, straight out of high school. Within his first month of basic training, 9/11 happened. He completed his 6 months of specialty training at Fort Bragg, and in March 2004 was deployed to Iraq. He had never heard of private contractors before Iraq, but said everyone in the army worked with them. When there's a problem, often a contractor is called in to fix it because contractors receive special security clearances soldiers don't.

The way Levi portrayed the contractor/solder relationship took a different turn from the other soldiers I'd spoken with. He characterized it as one of jealousy, "You're driving down the road and you look out your window and see contractors. They've got facial hair, they're wearing regular clothes, they're smoking cigarettes, and you're thinking, man, I wish I was doing that. You think, I'm gonna get home and go work for KBR. Make a buttload of money, retire at 30."

Despite initial hesitation, he agreed to speak on-camera. We scrapped together a crew in Texas and did the interview the following afternoon over a cell phone speakerphone.

Three days later, Levi returned to Iraq. On his first tour as a US soldier, he earned $22,000. This time is different. He'll be a private contractor.

(and he'll make $155,000)

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