BROWN AND ROOT BECAME an industrial powerhouse by building dams, highways, and power plants. Now the Houston-based engineering company is putting up tents and doing laundry. Don’t laugh: There’s big money in laundry, especially if you’re doing it for the Pentagon.
This year, Brown and Root will be paid $243 million to do chores for the United States military in Bosnia. That means building sewage systems, kitchens, and showers and, if need be, washing underwear for the 20,000 American soldiers stationed there. It’s not the first time that Brown and Root, which has annual revenues of $3 billion, has profited from the business of war. From 1962 to 1972 the Pentagon paid the company tens of millions of dollars to send two thousand of its workers to what used to be called South Vietnam, where they built roads, landing strips, harbors, and military bases from the Demilitarized Zone to the Mekong Delta. But in the current defense downsizing climate, noncombat tasks like accounting and food preparation are increasingly falling to private contractors—so Brown and Root’s services are more in demand than ever.
At the beginning of March, the company had 5,300 workers—the equivalent of six battalions—toiling 24 hours a day and seven days a week in Bosnia, Croatia, and Hungary to assure that American soldiers in the region had a good place to sleep, clean clothes, and a hot meal. Jim McKnight, who manages Brown and Root’s military logistics project from Houston, says the biggest challenge so far has been icy roads, which have delayed truckloads of matériel. Then there’s the Bosnian mud. “It redefines the word ‘mud,’” he says. “It’s everywhere and on everything.” And McKnight’s buyers had to go to five countries to buy enough plywood—57,000 sheets—to equip the 34 camps that his workers are building and maintaining.
McKnight’s forces are operating under a five-year contract won from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1992, when Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense. (After his boss, George Bush, left office, Cheney followed the well-worn path through the Pentagon’s revolving door and is now the CEO of Dallas’ Halliburton Company, Brown and Root’s parent.) During the Clinton administration, the company has been paid more than $270 million to work alongside American GIs in places like Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia, though Bosnia is its biggest payday. Nearly 13 percent of the $1.9 billion budgeted by the Pentagon for the Bosnia operation in 1996 will go to Brown and Root.
Of course, the Pentagon already spends $7 billion a year to train and equip 300,000 reservists who specialize in logistics, an overlap that is a matter of concern to the cost-cutters on Capitol Hill. Yet Lieutenant Colonel Ray Whitehead, an Army spokesman, insists the deal makes sense—and cents. “It’s a much more prudent use of taxpayer dollars,” he says, “when you think of the cost of mobilizing reserve components to do this kind of thing.”