Hazard Pay

I went to work in war-torn Afghanistan to help support my family. I nearly gave up my life in the process.

by Suzanne Wheeler-Wallace

IN 2003 I WAS WORKING ON A PROJECT as a construction engineer in Houston at the Bush Intercontinental Airport, and my job function eventually played out. I was scrambling around looking for a job when a friend of mine, a headhunter in California, said, “Hey, how’d you like to go overseas, to Afghanistan?” I sent my résumé to the company he’d told me about, and they immediately put me on a flight to meet them in Washington. I think I was hired before I got off the plane.

There were financial reasons why I had to go. I have a husband, and we’re helping raise his twelve-year-old grandson. We’d been married less than a year, and we both still had separate houses to pay for. We also knew what the job market was like in Houston. And at that time, October 2003, the media coverage was showing everything under control in Afghanistan. My job, overseeing the construction of schools and clinics in rural areas, was to be in an office in Kabul rather than in the field. So I took it.

I wasn’t on the job two weeks before I realized that most of the projects were in terrible shape. When I visited these outbacks to find out what the hell was going on, I was amazed by the hospitality. Whenever our helicopter would land, the kids and everyone would come out to greet us, coming on foot, on horseback, on donkeys. They were just sweet and generous people. They would take the last bit of candy they had and offer it to us with sweet tea. And despite my being a woman, the local crews were very accepting. I’ve had more resistance from men in Texas than I had in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans were just so thrilled that someone had finally come over to help them—not to take them over but to help them.

We had 149 construction sites going, and I probably visited 25 of them, all without incident. Then one weekend we were visiting 6 or 7 sites. Saturday went well, and the next morning we flew to a village in the Panjwayi district. After visiting a project site, we were getting ready to leave. My pilot got in the chopper and cranked it up and had the blade spinning when I got in. He turned to me, and when I gave the thumbs-up sign, the bodyguards closed the doors. About that time a bullet came through the windshield and hit my pilot in the shoulder. He jumped out of the chopper, and all of a sudden I heard br-r-r-r-r-r-r-rm. I looked down, and my stomach was smoking. When I unbuckled my belts, I realized that I couldn’t move, so I just opened the door of the chopper and fell out onto the ground. I was there for about an hour and a half, the bullets falling short of me and kicking up dirt. I just lay there holding my own guts in, thinking, “This is how I am going to die?”

Meanwhile, my British bodyguard had five rounds in him and was still shooting. My pilot had gone on to fight but was shot between the eyes and killed. But my Afghan bodyguard managed to get ahold of the satellite phone and call in. Fifty minutes later the Army choppers arrived. I kept wondering if they would be able to land before I took my last breath. I just didn’t think I could handle much more pain. Then I heard the crunching of their boots. That’s the nicest sound you could ever hear.

I’m still recovering today. I had emergency surgery in England, and then I was treated at St. Luke’s, in Houston. But I never know when I’m going to wake up and be sick. And psychologically, I’m not what I used to be. Somebody pops a balloon and I hit the ground. A few months ago a couple of women who were thinking of going to Iraq with Halliburton contacted me. I agreed to have them come out and talk. I wanted them to meet my family. I said to them, “Look, what happened to me didn’t just happen to me. It happened to my family. Imagine what your family is going to go through if something happens to you. That’s what you need to think about.” They listened, but they both went to Iraq anyway. The lure of the money, I guess.

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