Working at ground level with the military in Iraq

Phil Nerges, contractor with the U.S. Army, imaginatively captured the alien landscape of Iraq and kept notes of its impact. Since his return he has published Iraq Journal – Sketches from the Contracting Life. Now in its second and expanded edition with 8 additional chapters and numerous blog posts, the effects and memories of his original experience evolve along with him.

Today, we revisit those first experiences working alongside America’s troops, on the ground and in Iraq.  This series of 3 articles appears with profiles of military members interviewed by Helena Kaufman on her site and first appeared on in November 2011.

Why are there not more books about the stories of modern-day ‘camp followers’?

Work opportunities with the US military were taken up by roughly 50,000 strangers – civilian contractors in the alien landscape of Iraq.

Details of daily life compiled by Phil Nerges who spent two years on the ground paint a clear picture of the life of a contractor is available, to any who are interested.

“I don’t have the sense that I have the right to speak for anyone else,” says Nerges, “but I read a book by Frank O’Conner about the short story and it encouraged me to write and to try, in his words to, ‘give a voice to submerged populations’.

Contractors are submerged. They remind me of carnival workers in some ways even but are truly as Homer’s classic term in the Iliad describes, ‘Camp followers’.”

Much of the stories originate in the camps along MSR Tampa. It’s the main supply route that runs from bases in Kuwait up through Baghdad and on to points north.

“For the most part, contractors are cooks, truck drivers, electricians, carpenters, laundry workers, people like that. In the news, they are war profiteers or trigger happy gunslingers, etc. My stories describe life as a worker in the war zone without the customary politically motivated commentary.”

Nerges says contractors are different from service men and women. “You could demobilize; you could leave if you wanted to.” The Army, like any employer, had to be in tune with workers and their desire to work and sometimes their need to terminate and return home.

“Women worked in the base camps. Some women were also drivers. We travelled to other work assignments in helicopters, convoys and charter planes.” The terrain was sometimes dangerous.

Circle of life

“I wanted to write a song about the truck drivers. They amazed me as much as the soldiers but they didn’t get credit for anything. Some were surprisingly low paid, yet they just kept driving. The bases need the fuel.”

Nerges paints an interesting community.

“Workers cared about each other. There was a tale of a driver who drove into a bomb attack and though injured, drove everyone in his vehicle out of the kill zone to safety with the stumps of his arms.”

The wounded and the dead among them never made the news. Nerges recorded how camp followers felt as they lost the friends and colleagues. “The army has a protocol for injured or fallen warriors. There are processions and flags. There is no such marking of the passing of contractors.”

Nerges paused to remember an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper tapes to the wall of an office he was inspecting. It was a photo a Pakistani driver killed on duty. “That was his memorial.”

“Everyone is afraid over there.” Yet Nerges learned from army members that it’s a kind of litmus test. “If it bothers you, you are normal.”


How can one prepare for such situations?

“Two thirds of contractors are ex military personnel, so, many know what they’re getting into.” Nerges explains. “The company I worked for used State Department warnings to travellers. They showed videos of IED attacks. In that classroom, some exclaimed “cool.”

It’s different when you hear them, where you live and work.”

On reading the stories or hearing them at spoken word events, Nerges says people told him, “ I had no idea what it was like for workers there.”…

For his part he feels that “If I clear up any of the popular misconceptions about contractors, them my efforts are well worth it.”

Read Part 1 of Phil’s life in his two years of working as a contractor in Iraq.


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