The trio of posts presented by MilSuccessNet about Phil Nerges are based on an exclusive interview with Helena Kaufman and first appeared in Lanterloon, a site with “writing about the 1% that serves in the military,” in October 2011.
Originally entitled, Guess Who’s Coming Home From the War? this is the first in the posts about Nerges who writes about the life and work of contractors embedded with the military. A new and expanded version of his book Iraq Journal—Sketches from the Contracting Life, is set to launch next week on Amazon. It features eight new chapters plus updates from the version he published earlier this year.
Now, to the “back story” on this talented man:
Writer Phil Nerges signed on to work as a contractor in Iraq at a time when he was ready to make changes in his life. Nothing could have prepared him for what he felt and experienced in his two years working for the US Army, a stranger in a strange land. While there, his practiced photographer’s eye captured life as we never see it, hear it or read about it as we keep tabs on the world’s military hot spots from the comfort of our homes.
Phil Nerges did more than observe. He wrote. Just prior to the launch of his second book, Iraq Journal—Sketches from the Contracting Life, Nerges took time to share some of his journey.
His life transition took him to Iraq for two contract periods. Between those he worked on the rebuilding effort after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma on the Gulf coast.
His notes along the way and finally a period he calls “a post-Iraq catharsis” in a New Jersey artist house resulted in the Journal and before that a collection of nine stories in his first book, They Must Be Hungry.
“Not a hero nor a victim.”
“Nearly 50,000 civilians worked in Iraq during the same time I did. Multiply that number by 10, for 10 years of war, and you get a rough estimate of the civilian participation in the war,” says Nerges.
“Considering their numbers, they are a quiet bunch. Not much has been written describing daily life in the camps for those who weren’t “mercenaries” or “profiteers.”
‘Camp followers’ is a term Nerges uses. Homer used the term in the Iliad when he wrote about camp followers who looked after the people and equipment involved in wars waged in that time.
In his ‘old life’ Nerges qualified contractors in the petroleum industry. In Iraq he worked in quality control and assurance. He visited operations, reviewed records on deliverables and checked on maintenance schedules. To do this he selected a convoy and spoke to drivers and checked their logs.
Other roles included an armory project and a task force to interview managers to find out what problems they had on communication or compliance. Nerges’s work allowed him to “travel in the country—meet people and find out what they do, what sort of problems they have.”
“I went to archaeological digs, saw Babylon from afar, trod where Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan went. I was in the land of Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden.” Nerges wove all this other-earthly wonder around 12 hour work days, 7 days a week and 4 months at a time.
“I spent close to two years in Iraq. The first year I recorded my experiences by writing emails to friends and family. The second year, I began jotting things in a notebook. That and a novel I wrote that had nothing to do with Iraq, kept my mind off the war. I wrote in the notebook while traveling to various assignments and while scared senseless.”
In the daily email documentation he shared the harsher realities only with his brother, a Lt. Colonel. “I was open with my brother, but kept to descriptions of country and people to all others.” Even if he had shared, Phil Nerges learned that “People will debate you on what you saw with your own eyes, with what their opinion is and what they have seen or heard in media channels.”
“Iraq Journal is mostly constructed from my emails home. I condensed them into a single piece so that I would have something to pass on to my kids. I liked to think it would interest them. My father spent three years in India, Burma, and China during WWII, but he didn’t write about, and I wished he had.”
Nerges says the journal helped him make sense of his experiences. He stresses he is one man and speaks only for himself. His writing, however, gives voice to the camp followers who may find his fears and challenges familiar in the otherwise alien landscape of Iraq.
We look next at their situation.