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112 reston Wheeler woke up disoriented in a ditch along U.S. Highway 71 in western Arkansas. Gradually, it came back to him: the 18 wheeler passing on the two-lane road, the sharp pop, the cloud of dust from a blown rear tire. The flashback came as he veered right to avoid the blowout’s debris. As his car left the asphalt, a scene replayed: Preston was back on a dead-end road in Ad Duluiyah, north of Baghdad, trapped behind a flipped tractor-trailer. Four gunmen coaxed a fellow driver out of the truck ahead of his in the convoy. He heard the shots as the men executed the driver in the street. Their white pants flapped in the wind, the road behind them streaked with blood. Preston regained consciousness alone in his Chevy Cavalier. His psychiatrist had warned him against returning to his job as a driver on the open road. So instead, he drove semitrailers in circles around a Tyson Foods Inc. lot, hauling live chickens to the slaughterhouse-100,000 a day. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He, of all people, should have known. The U.S. employs more civilian contractors than soldiers in Iraq. Preston’s former employer, Houston-based KBR Inc., formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., is the largest company operating there. During five years of war, the Army and some contractors have improved the ways they detect and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. KBR has not, according to its wounded employees. KBR’s screening procedure is left to on-site counselors who identify employees who’ve faced trauma, rather than a routine screening for all workers when they return home. Workers often have to recognize their own symptoms and request, or sometimes fight for, treatment through the company’s insurance carrier. “When employees/ former employees contact KBR, the company assists them in making a claim:’ says Heather Browne, a KBR spokesperson. Many civilian contract employees come from East Texas and neighboring states like Arkansas, the result of recruiting in dead-end towns. A job in Iraq that triples your current pay doesn’t look so bad when you’re in debt even after a long, hard year of trucking at home. Preston had a simple dream: He wanted to build his own house in the woods near his hometown of Wickes, Arkansas. Given the local economy, it was more fantasy than plan. Sometimes you have to leave your hometown for a job; he knew that. Tired of chasing oil, cement, and trucking jobs, he hoped a year or two in Iraq would be his shortcut to a new home, a clear credit record, and enough money to support his son. “‘Round here, you either got something or you don’t:’ Preston says, driving through Wickes. “Most people are content as they can be with the way their life is.” With the local logging industry running on machines instead of manpower, the Tyson plant is the only major employer left. It was a cold day last January, and Preston, who’d just turned 40, wore a green Carhartt jacket and a camouflage hat. He sat behind the wheel of his girlfriend Kellie’s truck while she and in the back. Preston is of medium height and average builda few dozen pounds lighter, he says, since he quit drinking a few months earlier. He drove past the Wickes housing project, a long row of structures tucked behind a thin stand of pines, where he lived when he was young. Older cars shared the front yard with lawn mower parts and mud-covered toys. “I guarantee you, if my dad knew I went to Iraq, he would flip plumb out:’ Preston says. The year before Preston was born, his dad came back from Vietnam missing both his legs. Wayne Wheeler was with the Marines in 1966 when he stepped on a land mine in Da Nang. When he returned, he was sullen, often drunk, and prone to fits of rage at home. Over a few years, Preston’s mother, Yvonne, realized she had a painful decision to maketougher still with four children and no job of her own. “Daddy was real abusive Preston says. “I don’t really remember them breaking up. I just remember we moved.” Yvonne remarried and moved to Texarkana. Preston spent high school getting into fights and skipping class. He flunked out of his junior year twice, then dropped out, got his GED, and went to work at the chicken plant. Later he left for oil field work in Bakersfield, concrete work in Oklahoma City, and a string of trucking jobs. He married and divorced twice. His son Blaine, from his first marriage, lives with him today and is a senior at Wickes High. After every job and each woman, Preston always came home. By 2005, he was deep in debt from house expenses and medical bills, and didn’t see a way clear. If there were two kinds of folks in Wickes, the ones with something and those without, he could see which group he was headed for. Preston knew of people from town who had driven trucks in Iraq. “They came back no problem, so I decided maybe I’d go over there and I wouldn’t have a problem,” he says. “It wasn’t desperation. I just knew that was a lifetime opportunity to go make that kind of money. I wanted a home so bad, I was willing to pay that price.” In 2005, when his second wife admitted to cheating on him, he asked her to move out, making his choice to leave simple. Summing up his state of mind at the time, he remembers thinking, “I got nobody else. It’s just me, and I’m gonna do this or get killed.” As it happened, fate found a third way. Five hundred million served,” signs should read at KBR’s dining halls. The scale of KBR’s accomplishments, enumerated in a company press release, is awesome: 272 million pounds of mail and 3.5 billion gallons of fuel delivered, over 3.7 million miles of road traveled, 32 million clothing bundles laundered worldwidejust since December 2001. The private sector that accompanies the U.S. military in Iraq is an elaborate patchwork of contracts and subcontracts, MARCH 21, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9