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Iraq Journals

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Tuesday, February 24

U.S. contractors deal with harsh Iraqi environment

By Florida Today

The heat turns peanut butter into jelly. Even at night, the temperature is still so searing that a rat will gnaw through a package of baby wipes to reach the moisture inside.

But the heat was only one ever-present hardship John O'Brien and other DRS Technologies military contractors had to deal with in Iraq while they were cleaning, fixing and improvising to keep the mast-mounted sighting systems working on the Army's Kiowa Warrior helicopters.

O'Brien - who works for DRS Optronics in Melbourne, Fla., a subsidiary of Parsippany, N.J.-based DRS Technologies - is just one of hundreds of military contractors in Iraq. Many of the same life-threatening dangers that confront soldiers in that roiling land also are present for the men and women who voluntarily work to keep the intricate machines of warfare running.

So why go where hundreds of soldiers have died while trying to stabilize a war-torn country and root out supporters of captured dictator Saddam Hussein?

A former military man himself, O'Brien, 44, said it's a sense of duty. "If we don't do it, who will?"

"To go to Iraq, though, there has to be more of a reason than money," said Bob Klaver, head of the mast-mounted sight program. "These guys feel a loyalty to those troops over there. That might be because many of our employees are former military. It just means more to you."

O'Brien has been working on the mast-mounted sight for more than 10 years. It sits just above a helicopter's spinning rotors. It is just bigger than a beach ball and looks like a giant head wearing goggles.

One eye of that head has a sophisticated long-range day camera, while the other holds a night-vision system that allows Kiowa pilots to see the enemy before they can be seen. The Kiowa is mainly used for reconnaissance.Having the contractors already in Iraq is a huge savings for the Army. DRS recently determined that its employees saved the military about $16 million in fiscal year 2003.

With the Kiowa warrior in the air three times more than usual, there will, of course, be more wear on the components, meaning circuit cards will short or break, or systems will become fouled with sand and grit from the battlefield.

"Sand got into everything," said Phillip Ray, a DRS Optronics field-service representative stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky., who recently finished his six months in Iraq. "All you can do is take out the sand the best you can."

The contractors are given bulletproof vests, but they are so bulky and it is so hot that they don't always wear them. The contractors aren't allowed to carry weapons.

"We have to rely on the soldiers for our protection," said Tommy Tipton, who is in charge of the field-service representatives in Iraq. "If you don't trust the guys around you, how can you feel secure? They rely on us to keep the equipment running for their missions."

For Ray, the scariest moments came as they moved in convoys. Iraqis would swarm toward them, some friendly, some not. He remembers seeing bullets fired at some of the vehicles. The Humvee he was in wasn't armored.

"Hundreds of people would come up to us," he said. "But you can't watch them all."

The conditions were like nothing O'Brien had ever experienced in his 16 years in Army special operations. Even thinking of home didn't erase a reality filled with sand - sand in his clothes, even in his armpits.

"I have never been that miserable in my entire life," O'Brien said. "You just can't cool down. You feel like you are going to explode."

O'Brien was grateful to get home to Melbourne, where his new pool and nearby beaches were waiting for him.

"That's what kept me going," he said. "I had a picture of my house in Melbourne with me and took it wherever I went. I love the beach, to see dolphins and turtles. I sat down by my pool and drank a margarita in honor of the guys still in Iraq."