BEHIND THE WHEEL IN IRAQ
Besides courage and luck, there is one more thing a truck driver needs to survive in a war zone: good reflexes.
"It's actually possible to swerve to get out of the way of an RPG," said Art Warren, a Union trucker who has been working in Iraq since last summer.
"On one of my trips, I saw two RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) coming straight at me. I swerved to the left and the first one missed. I swerved to the right and the second one just missed my tail."
Warren, 44, is among that rare breed of American civilians who have forsaken the safety of their homes for jobs in Iraq.
While driving for U.S. Express last year, he heard from a co-worker about a company that was looking for drivers to deliver military equipment in the war-torn country.
"They're recruiting at truck stops, and you hear about it by word of mouth, too," Warren said. "We looked them up on the Internet, did an online application, then sent them a written one."
The company, which he said he is not at liberty to name, liked his qualifications and hired him.
He started work toward the end of last summer, at a rate of pay higher than what he made stateside.
Warren is an experienced trucker who also has a background in law enforcement. He has worked as a correctional officer, an armed security guard, even as a bounty hunter.
His reasons for taking the job in Iraq go beyond money. Service to country is a family tradition, he said.
His brother, Sean Warren, is currently serving in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard's Third Battalion, 116th Armored Cavalry; another brother, Lee Burke, recently completed a tour with the 101st Airborne Division.
A U.S. Navy veteran himself, Warren said he wanted to contribute something to the war effort, too.
"I heard that there weren't enough drivers to move supplies from Point A to Point B, and I wanted to do my part," he said. "One civilian driver frees up three soldiers for other duties."
From a base in Kuwait, Warren drives a flat-bed truck to "four or five army bases" in Iraq. The mission is both military and humanitarian, he said.
"Pretty much we're hauling military supplies. But we also deliver stuff to the Army that they give to civilians," he said.
Travel orders are handed out in the morning at the base in Kuwait.
Containers are loaded on the trucks and secured with chains.
Drivers make sure they've got enough supplies Â— including extra clothes, water, and food in the form of MREs Â— Meals Ready to Eat.
They're required to wear military issue helmets and protective vests. They do not, however, carry guns.
"All we have is a knife, in case we get over-run. It's not much to protect yourself with, but at least it's something," Warren said.
Still, he doesn't feel overly threatened when he is on the road.
The trucks travel in convoys, with military escorts. HUMVEEs manned by armed-and-ready soldiers roll with the convoy; other soldiers, called "shooters," ride in some of the transport vehicles.
A convoy's location is known at all times, and help is never far away.
"We can usually get air support in five minutes," Warren said.
The dangers along the road are many. On Warren's very first run, a truck in his convoy was hit by an RPG. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
"All I heard was a sound like canvas ripping. We pulled off into a safe area, and the guys said we'd been hit. One truck was damaged and one guy slightly hurt," he said.
There have been many other close calls since then.
"I'm on my fourth truck," Warren said.
Insurgents launching grenades or setting off roadside bombs aren't the only hazards Warren and his co-workers face.
Anarchy of another kind often rears its head on the highways.
"The Iraqi drivers are terrible. If there's too much traffic going north, they just get in the southbound lane and drive against the flow," Warren said.
"They stop wherever they want to. Sometimes if they need a pack of cigarettes or whatever, they stop at roadside stores Â— we call them Iraqi 7-11s Â— and leave their cars parked in the middle of the road as they run inside."
Depending on the convoy's destination, trips last between two and 10 days.
Warren delivers mostly to bases in southern Iraq, but he has driven as far north as Baghdad. His travels take him through isolated deserts and bustling cities.
The convoys travel at top speed, stop for nothing Â— and so the drivers don't get to interact much with the Iraqi people.
But one thing's certain Â— when a convoy does pull over, it is immediately surrounded by kids.
"It doesn't matter where you are, even out in the middle of the desert where you wouldn't think anybody lives. The kids just show up," Warren said.
The youngsters ask for handouts, but rules strictly forbid giving anything away.
"It's said they'll hand over what we give them to insurgents," Warren said. "We can't even give them a pop, because the insurgents know how to make a bomb out of the can."
Hostilities aside, Warren said he believes the majority of Iraqi people support the American presence.
"I think they're glad we're there. Driving along, I see them waving, cheering, flashing the thumbs-up and the peace sign," he said.
In late November, Warren suffered a hernia while securing a load on his truck. He was sent home for surgery.
It was a cloud with a silver lining, since he got to spend the holidays with his wife Nancy, their four children and one grandchild.
His doctor has signed a release and he will soon head for Iraq again. He said he is looking forward to getting back to work.
"This is a job that needs to get done," he said. "It's my philosophy that if you've got a job to do, you do it right."
His wife said she misses him when he's gone, but stands behind his decision to take part in the war effort.
Nancy said it bothers her that civilian workers in Iraq aren't accorded the same kind of respect as service
"Sometimes when I tell people what he does, they act like it's stupid because he's there when he doesn't have to be," she said.
"They don't stop to think that he's the kind of man who takes a lot of pride in his country. I'm extremely proud of him."
The contract Warren's company holds with the Department of Defense is long-term, and he isn't thinking about changing jobs anytime soon.
Patriotism and decent wages are prime motivations. But a love for adventure has something to do with it, too.
"They call us road warriors," he said. "When we're out driving, we go fast and we don't stop. The highways are ours."