For Abducted Guards, Iraq Wasn't Just About Money

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 30, 2007

ON MAIN SUPPLY ROUTE TAMPA, Iraq -- Surrounded by darkness, an AK-47 at his side, Jonathon Cote considered his future from the driver's seat of a black Chevy Avalanche hurtling through southern Iraq early last November.

Months earlier, Cote had been a reluctant accounting major at the University of Florida, a popular 23-year-old freshman who'd enrolled after four years in the Army. Cote pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and collected $5 covers at a bar called the Whiskey Room. He drove a red Yamaha R1 motorcycle around campus until one evening he did a wheelie and was arrested for drunk driving.

Broke and despondent, Cote spoke to an Army buddy, who told him he could make $7,000 a month protecting supply convoys in Iraq. On his days off, his friend told him, he'd get to go jet-skiing on the Persian Gulf. Cote was concerned that he might lose his Florida driver's license, but in Iraq he would pilot a company "gun truck" with a belt-fed machine gun mounted in back.

"Basically I was looking for a feeling that I didn't have, and this job provided that," Cote said, his iPod set to shuffle as he steered his truck through the soft Iraqi night. "It's a distraction from the DUI, how I couldn't find a degree that I liked in college. And then there's the money. I have $30,000, and I'm going back to school with a plan."

"Life-threatening situations straighten you up fast," he said.

He had already announced his intention to return home on his U.S. voice mail and had picked a new major, exercise physiology.

On Nov. 16, Cote's plan was undone by the realities of Iraq. Driving their gun trucks along the same stretch of highway where he had sketched his future, he and four colleagues from Crescent Security Group, a small private firm, were ambushed and taken hostage. The status of the four Americans and one Austrian, 25-year-old Bert Nussbaumer of Vienna, is unknown. Cote's 24th birthday passed Feb. 11. His drunk-driving case was dismissed after the seizure.

Two weeks before the attack, the four Americans spoke at length to a Washington Post reporter traveling with them in Iraq. Together, their stories describe the diverse motivations of the private security guards whose numbers have proliferated since the start of the war, with tens of thousands of armed civilians taking on some of the most dangerous tasks.

All four missing Americans are military veterans; two -- Cote and Joshua Munns, a 24-year-old former Marine from Redding, Calif. -- did combat tours in Iraq. Their comments reveal men acutely aware of their vulnerability, yet driven by life choices that transcend mercenary stereotypes. To a man, they said they had come to Iraq for fast money. But they were also lured by the camaraderie they had known in the military, the continuous rush of adrenaline, the opportunity to see history unfold and the chance to escape mundane lives back home.

"This is me, okay? This is me," said John Young, who led the Crescent team that was ambushed and is among the missing. Young, 44, of Lee's Summit, Mo., is 5-foot-8 and thin, with a shaved head, blond mustache and piercing blue eyes. After leaving the Army in 1991, he worked as a carpenter in a family business before joining Crescent in 2005. He has a 15-year-old daughter, Jasmyn, and a 19-year-old son, John Robert.

Young had decided to keep returning to Iraq, even after a bullet took a chunk out of the collar of his armored vest and threw him into the steering wheel as he escorted a convoy through Baghdad one afternoon.

The tattered vest that saved him was displayed on a wooden table in a conference room at Crescent's Kuwait City offices.

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