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Contractors Don’t Die

by Angela Grant

Being a contractor downrange is a little like being a freshman or driving a Yugo or not owning a single pair of name-brand sneakers; you have no status. Doesn’t matter whether you are in engineering or IT or education, there are military members and DOD civilians that you know are thinking  you’re not one of us, you’re just here for the money.

The nine months I was on leave to teach at the Army Education Center at Kandahar, UMUC was paying me about what DoDDS had. Plus, I always felt like saying, “I am paying taxes, sir/ma’am.” Three hundred and thirty days was longer than I wanted to be away from my daughter who was in college back in the States.

The other way you knew who you were was housing. I found out during a stop at Bagram that the shared room-with-bath-down-the-hall that I had been expecting was now a tent with latrine-who-knew-where. New policy: all contractors are assigned to tents.

But these were not the Girl Scout tents of my youth. They were air-conditioned and heated, with bunk beds and lockers. I had eight or ten tent mates, but I was only there to sleep. There was a DFAC pretty close, which meant I could stock up before hiking the mile or so to the Ed. Center.  This lasted for four months until my boss, a civilian who was probably feeling guilty because she did not live in a tent, managed to have me assigned to a four-woman room in a real building with indoor facilities.

These distinctions caught me by surprise because the way I saw it, you were either military or you weren’t; there were no degrees of civilian. On the other hand, we were all volunteers – and some military members volunteer for deployments. Some civilians wore uniforms. A few, especially those out at FOBs, even carried weapons.

So what was the dividing line, the real difference? I don’t think I could have articulated it then, but looking back I believe it was this: civilians, including contractors, didn’t die. I hadn’t read any of the research that put the number of civilian deaths during OIF and OEF at several thousand, and if I had, I wouldn’t have believed it ever happened on U.S. military installations  — most of us weren’t allowed off base, as a result of rocket attacks  — the only ordnance that made it over the wire at KAF.

People did die at KAF, but not anyone I knew. The base was rocketed frequently in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011. (The bad guys tended to ease off in the winter.) Mostly they were duds or off-target, and most of us paid them little attention. After the first few weeks,  if  they came at night I might hit the floor when the alarm sounded, but I didn’t bother going out. When class was in session, I’d drag the students to the bunker, although they would have been just as happy to keep discussing federalism or extemporaneous speaking or whatever was on that night’s syllabus.

The DFAC out where I used to live was hit during dinner one night, and we heard that a soldier who had stopped in the Ed. Center once was killed. He might have been there to see about CLEPing one of his subjects.  I had a vague memory of a tall young man with sandy hair, but that might just have been how the others in the office described him to me later. Two food service workers died, too, but I didn’t know anyone who knew them.

I also didn’t know the young woman in the housing office, but the Sergeant who manned the next desk over was a student in one of my writing classes. Teachers really can read their students’ faces, and I could tell as soon as he walked into class that night that something was wrong. He was a cheerful  Hispanic kid,  I’ll call him Garcia, with a squarish face that seemed to have elongated somehow, as if the weight of whatever it was had pulled it out of shape. When he told me what had happened, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally, I asked if he had anyone to talk to, and he said he’d had grief counseling.

He didn’t stay for class. He said he just wanted to let me know that he’d be pretty busy – it was his job to pack up her things and ship them to her family. He said he might not make it back, but he would email me his assignments.

I found out later that she was alone working late. Maybe it was her shift, or maybe she was trying to get a handle on her new job. She was a contractor who had arrived from a country in Africa, nobody knew which one. Everyone said her parents hadn’t wanted her to go.

I didn’t see Garcia again. He finished the class. He missed a couple of assignments, and he got a B for the course. I should have given him an A.

Angela Grant was a DoDDS kid and is now a DoDDS teacher. She taught for UMUC at the Army Education Center at Kandahar during 2010 – 2011. Her father served on active duty then in the reserve and was a writer. Her children, Erik and Clara, are in the military and are also writers.

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