BURNET, Tex. -- At night, after their work was finished and the desert moon had risen over their camp, some of the civilian truckers who hauled military supplies across Iraq would gather at their base in Kuwait and watch videos.
They watched the same two or three clips over and over again, fast-forwarding through some scenes, rewinding to replay others, pausing to stare at the screen. In each, they noted the way the victim's hands were bound. They counted the seconds between the time his neck was cut open and when he stopped struggling. They would tie each other up and practice how to escape a similar fate at the hands of anti-American insurgents.
Allen Petty, who spent four months in Iraq as a driver for KBR, with his daughter Katy, 10 months, back home in Burnet, Tex., in October. Petty hoped to earn enough for a house but said the pay was less than he had expected.
(Photos Michael Stravato For The Washington Post)
Allen Petty, who went to Iraq to drive a truck for KBR, the Houston-based subsidiary of Halliburton, said he soon was able to calculate how long it took a beheaded man to die: "Between seven and 15 seconds."
"There's a reason we watched those videos," explained Petty, 32. The truckers figured there was little they could do to ensure they wouldn't be kidnapped, so they tried to prepare for how to escape if they were.
Watching the videos, Petty said, "was our weapon."
But by the end of August, Petty, who went to Iraq to earn enough money to build a house for his wife and six girls, had had enough.
He had dodged roadside bombs, mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and bullets as he drove his unarmored flatbed between U.S. military bases in Iraq. He had lived that unnerving fear of being kidnapped by men in black hoods. And he was earning no more than he made driving a truck in the United States, with an extra run to Mississippi thrown in.
So four months into a one-year contract, Petty came home to his family in Burnet, population 4,735. He was a broken man, said his wife, Sylvia Petty, profoundly different from the person who had left Texas in May hoping to return free of debt.
"He brought the war home," Sylvia said. "His character changed. He is at the bottom of the barrel."
Allen Petty returned to the same life he had tried to escape, only this time without a job. His former employer would not rehire him.
He was jumpy, nervous, depressed -- exhibiting signs of traumatic stress months after he returned -- but was unable to seek professional help. KBR offered counseling in Houston, 226 miles southeast of here, but the family said there was no way they could afford the gas to get there and back.
Sylvia said her husband seemed crushed by the weight of having failed to provide for his girls.
The Petty family rang in the New Year sad and depressed. The girls looked up at their father, Sylvia recalled, and asked when he would find a job. He couldn't look back at them. "Nobody wants your daddy," he told his daughters.
"It's been the most awful week," Sylvia said, "and things keep getting worse."