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Vet finds hope when work is a war zone

A Vietnam veteran who went to work as a civilian contractor in Iraq finds similarities in the two conflicts, but profound and important differences.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published June 4, 2004

PALMA CEIA - Ray Miller was a substitute teacher last year for the Hillsborough County School District making $8.97 an hour. He taught in middle schools mostly and ended up with a lot of tough kids.

It didn't take long for him to realize he may have made a mistake. He had worked in Tampa as a supervisor for Delta Air Lines for 36 years. He had hiked the Grand Canyon and taken up hang gliding and scuba diving. He was 57. He didn't need, he would say later, 13-year-olds swearing at him.

Then a friend mentioned MPRI, a professional services company that does defense contract work and employs mostly former law enforcement and military personnel.

They were looking for people to help distribute equipment and supplies to U.S. troops in Iraq as part of a contingent of hundreds of civilians who have taken over the duty of supplying the military.

The pay was good - $10,000 a month. But the work was dangerous. MPRI officials told Miller that Iraqi insurgents had placed $1,500 bounties on Americans.

He could decline the offer, they said, and no one would think any less of him.

But Miller weighed his options. He had served in Vietnam. He was divorced, his two children were in college, and life had gotten kind of dull in Palma Ceia.

"And honestly," he said, "the only thing I'm really afraid of is heights.

"My daughter and most of my friends thought I was nuts. But I looked at it as a great adventure."

So he sent in his resume, and a few days later, in early March, MPRI flew him to its headquarters in Virginia. He got a series of shots, his military ID, a gas mask and body armor.

A day later, he found himself in Kuwait, just a few miles from the Iraqi border. While he was there, he learned that four U.S. security officers were killed and mutilated in Fallujah on March 31. He was headed to that area.

"We rented our SUVs from the same company in Kuwait," Miller said. "I saw the whole thing on Arab TV. But for some reason, I wasn't that afraid."

Still, when he was offered a combat knife to carry, he didn't decline.

Miller spent the next month in Balad, outside Baghdad, and in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.

Usually from inside a tent, he distributed helmets, desert boots, socks that guard against fungus and other equipment. On occasion, he and several co-workers hopped in Humvees with armed guards and went into the field to bring the supplies to the troops.

"It was easy money," he said. "We lived with the Army. They protected us."

Most of the time.

While he was standing outside a building near Baghdad, a mortar exploded about 100 yards away, smashing windows in the building but sparing him.

"Never heard it coming," he said. "But the concussion from the explosion was incredible.

"I was very lucky."

The similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, he said, are obvious. In 1967, Miller was a Marine stationed at Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. military installation located along the South China Sea. It was a secure base. Most of the time.

"It's the same type of war, same guerrilla tactics," he said. "The Vietnamese would come to work on the base, and Iraqis do the same thing.

"But you really don't know who to trust. Whenever you leave the base, you're always watching who's around you.

"You never wander around by yourself."

But unlike Vietnam, he said, troop morale is high in Iraq.

"Our troops are well-trained and well-equipped, the food is good, and most of the Iraqis really appreciate that we're there," he said. "But they want their country back. And there are groups that want to set their own leaders up. They're walking around with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).

"If we leave now, a lot of good people will get hurt."

For a month, Miller withstood afternoon temperatures in the mid-90s, swarms of flies and the fine desert sand that led to bronchial and sinus infections. Threats to his safety were a constant.

But only one thing brought him home: his daughter's graduation from Florida State University on May 2.

"She really wanted me to be there," he said. "And I couldn't say no."

The first thing he did when he got back was pour himself a cold glass of chardonnay. It wasn't long before he started thinking about going back.

"They (MPRI officials) asked me to come back," he said. "Right now . . . I don't know. I was watching TV and saw another car bomb blew up today."

He figures it might be a good idea to wait until after June 30 when the United States plans to transfer authority to an Iraqi interim government.

"We had to sleep in tents and there was the desert and the dust. And you miss your family.

But the money is enticing and the work tolerable.

"Teaching middle schoolers was harder," he said. "I went home stressed every day."

- Tom Zucco can be reached at 226-3405 or zucco@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 10:50:24]

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