To make a living, driver risked it all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIDDLETOWN, Del. - Art Linderman lived his life surrounded by stars and stripes - from a plaque with a flag motif on his living room wall, to his blankets, his mailbox and most prominently in his front yard, where Old Glory shared a pole with a Marine banner.

On Jan. 30, the American flag draped the coffin of the 58-year-old grandfather and Vietnam veteran, the victim of insurgents in Iraq.

It wasn't patriotism, though, that sent Linderman thousands of miles from home to Iraq, where he arrived in August to work as a civilian truck driver for KBR, the engineering and construction wing of Halliburton Co. He was there because he couldn't find steady work at home.

"We said everything to try to convince him not to go," said his wife, Linda. "The military servicemen, they're over there doing their job. But he just wanted to make a living for us. That's the only reason he was there."

In May 2001, Linderman and 150 fellow Teamsters lost their jobs working for a contractor at the local Chrysler plant. With his family struggling to pay the bills, a neighbor's tip about high-paying jobs in Iraq lured him into the danger zone, where blue-collar workers can make $70,000 to $100,000 a year tax-free.

Americans are accustomed to hearing the military death toll in Iraq - 529 since the war started - because the Pentagon knows exactly how many of its 130,000 service men and women are in the country and what has happened to them.

But largely absent from the public consciousness are the thousands of civilians putting their lives on the line as contractors in Iraq, the cooks, plumbers, electricians, construction laborers, translators, security guards, drivers and other workers.

"You see it on the news all the time, two U.S. soldiers killed, and then two civilians. They don't even say if they're American or Iraqi," said Linderman's son, Art III, 32. "Most Americans don't realize there are a lot of U.S. citizens over there now."

Linderman told his family not to worry - if he made it through 18 months as a Marine in Vietnam, he could make it through Iraq. He wore a helmet and flak jacket to work. His truck, which he personalized with a dashboard flag and a duct-taped sign out front that said "Irish Rover," had a military escort.

But with convoys under repeated attack, Linderman sounded increasingly concerned during phone conversations with family and friends. His windshield and headlights had to be replaced after being shattered by gunfire. A few weeks ago, he told his son he was being issued a 9 mm handgun. After former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was captured, his daughter, Deanna Linderman, 34, asked him whether things had improved. He said no, they had gotten worse.

"He wasn't scared of nothing," said his best friend, Mitch Radulski of Bear, Del., Linderman's night-shift buddy in the car yard. "But I could hear it in his voice; he was not comfortable where he was."

On Jan. 14, Linderman's convoy was near Tikrit when the insurgents attacked. Two people were killed, and two were wounded, including Linderman.

For more than a week, he lingered on life-support as he was flown to Germany, then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and, finally, to Christiana Hospital in Delaware. He died Jan. 26, the day he had been scheduled to return home for two weeks of rest and relaxation.

No one formally tracks the number of U.S. civilian contractors in Iraq or how many have been killed or injured.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, led by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, estimates that about 4,000 U.S. civilians are working for private companies in Iraq and that about 800 civilians are employed by the Department of Defense. Of those, the authority estimates, five U.S. civilians, all of them working for private companies, have been killed since President Bush declared the war over May 1. The authority has no estimates on the number of injuries.

But getting an accurate count is tricky, given the swelling numbers of American and non-U.S. contractors working in the country, and with new companies popping up all the time.

"No one knows the figures. The accounting and accountability is Enron-like," said P.W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Corporate Warriors.

Using the rule-of-thumb ratio of one contractor to every 10 U.S. soldiers, Singer estimates that the number of civilians in Iraq performing military-support functions alone could be 10,000 to 15,000, including non-U.S. contractors. Beyond that, numerous contractors perform nonmilitary tasks such as installing a cell phone network.

Singer estimates that the civilian death toll among all contractors has exceeded 25. "But we don't know where it stops. It could be 50," he said.

"It's not even arguable that the U.S. military could not accomplish its mission right now without the support from these contractors, given how stretched thin they are," Singer said. "But it raises concerns about accountability ... and the terrible planning before this war."

With the U.S. economy creating relatively few jobs, and work available in Iraq, Linderman wasn't about to pass up the opportunity. His family called him a stubborn Irishman who put his family first.

Those close to him are quick to relay stories of his generosity: buying food for the homeless person in Philadelphia, helping colleagues on the night shift start their cars on winter mornings before heading home, tossing food and candy to hungry Iraqi children on the roadside, helping the neighbor whose husband had shipped out with the Air Force to the Middle East.

He was a rabid Phillies and Eagles fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the most arcane statistics, a fierce competitor in the neighborhood softball league and a man who loved his beer and horseshoe parties.

"You didn't want to beat Art at 10 of 9 at night," said neighbor David Strawbridge, an Air Force Reserve captain on active duty who helped set up a fund for Linderman's survivors at PNC Bank in Middletown. "He always wanted to play another game to get back at you.

The family had been struggling financially since Linderman lost his job. Art III had also worked in the Chrysler yard, processing cars for delivery, and together they went looking for jobs - factory, warehouse, shipping work, anything. But Linderman was repeatedly rejected because of his age, his son said.

Through the Teamsters, he got his commercial driver's license and signed up for work through the union hall, but the job climate was brutal. "That first year, we got called six to eight times to work just for a day," said Radulski, who was in the same situation.

"He wasn't one who was going to sit around and collect unemployment and mope and then go on welfare," Radulski said. "We looked for work, union and nonunion. We just couldn't find it."

Eventually, Linderman picked up work driving a truck two to three days a week, but it wasn't enough, even with Linda's job as a school district financial secretary. Adding to their pressures, the couple had gained custody of their granddaughter, Makayla, now 21 months old.

In June, a neighbor who worked for KBR told Linderman about jobs in Iraq. His family couldn't believe he would go.

Linderman put himself on a diet and stopped drinking beer to lower his blood pressure and get his 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound body into shape to pass the company's physical.

The pay was significantly higher than what he had earned while fully employed at home, though the family would not give details.

Teamsters spokesman Joseph Smith said an average truck driver makes $45,000 a year in Delaware. But in Iraq, blue-collar workers, such as truck drivers, generally start at $350 a day, according to a coalition spokesman in Baghdad. Linderman worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, his family said.

A Halliburton spokeswoman did not return phone or e-mail requests for an interview.

"He tried to get me to go," Radulski said. "He said, 'We'll go over there together, and we're going to make good money and be able to pay the bills. And when we come home, we ain't gonna have nothing to worry about, and we don't have to be there long.' I tried to talk him out of it."

Everyone had been looking forward to Linderman's return for his break. Linda left the Christmas decorations up so that they could have a delayed celebration. The couple would have celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary Tuesday.

On Jan. 14, Linderman was on his last convoy before the break when gunmen pulled up beside his truck and fired automatic weapons, penetrating the door of his truck. A bullet entered Linderman's body below his left armpit, missing the flak jacket, and exited his neck. He went into cardiac arrest and fell into a coma.

Medics restarted his heart, and he remained on life-support for more than a week, but the family learned later that he was clinically dead soon after the ambush because of loss of oxygen to the brain.

Linda was at her desk at work when she got the call from Kuwait at 9:15 a.m. "Is my husband dead?" she asked. Not dead, injured, the official said; critical but stable. Sobbing, she handed the phone to her supervisor, who took the information and then drove her home.

On Jan. 22, after doctors at Christiana Hospital told them Linderman was in a permanent vegetative state, the family decided to remove him from life-support.

Linda and her son kept a vigil for the next four days, talking to Linderman constantly. Art III said he would have big shoes to fill but would take care of the family.

On the night of Jan. 25, Linda told her husband she was going outside the room for a while and kissed him on the lips. When she drew her head away, she said, she saw a tear drop from his eye. At 4:26 the next morning, Art III was holding his father's hand when he saw his color turn yellow. He called his mother in. The pulse was gone.

Strawbridge, the neighbor, picked up the family from the hospital. As they pulled into the 5-year-old development of two-story Colonial houses, Strawbridge noted that several flags were flying at half-staff, the neighborhood's tribute to Linderman.

Last week, three days after the funeral, Linda and Art III sat in the family's living room, looking through pictures Linderman had sent home - four boxes of them.

His daughter Janet, 24, had made a collage, including a photo of her father in his Phillies cap, with his cargo of water-purifying equipment, a patch with the logo "Iraqi Freedom. We will not fail," a camel chugging bottled water and an Irish blessing.

Four sprigs of pine with Christmas bows remained outside the house, but the other decorations had come down after the funeral. The flag that draped his casket was folded and was placed on the mantel.

On Tuesday, her 36th wedding anniversary, Linda went to the hospital to pick up her husband's death certificate. On Friday, his belongings arrived from Iraq. "I can't bring myself to go through them," she said, choking up. "He was my friend. He was my lover."

"I want other women in my position to think about this," Linda said. "I mean, the money's nice, but it's not worth a life, a precious life."

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