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Soldier of Misfortune: Jonathon Coté's Life Counted, Even if He's Left Out of the Body Count in Iraq
It was war without planning. War without ideology. War as a paycheck.
War as escape.
I first met Coté in November 2006, when he invited me to ride along with him from Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah back to the Kuwait City headquarters of his company, Crescent Security Group. To hold down costs, Crescent navigated Iraq's dangerous roads in silver and black Chevy Avalanches -- pickup trucks with scavenged steel plates wedged into the doors for armor and belt-fed PK machine guns mounted in back. Two months earlier, Coté told me, a roadside bomb had blown one of the flimsy trucks 150 yards off Iraq's main supply route, killing two Iraqi employees who were inside.
It was midafternoon, the heat radiating off the desert as Coté wheeled his Avalanche toward the front gate of the air base. We reached a frontage road and were suddenly unable to move. A convoy of big rigs stood in our way. To the left was a chain-link fence that ran the length of the road. To the right was a steep dirt shoulder that sloped down into a vast field of mud.
"Hang on," Coté told me with a sly grin. "You got your seatbelt on?"
He gunned the Avalanche down the shoulder. The truck slammed into the muck, pitching us into the dashboard, then reared up, engine roaring, tires spinning. Coté downshifted and the truck lunged forward, bucking us through the mud. As we reached the front of the convoy, Coté yanked the truck back onto the asphalt road. Then he laughed and laughed.
Coté said he sometimes felt as if he were watching himself play himself at war. He was 23 and looked like a Tommy Hilfiger model, with short brown hair, a handsome face faintly scarred with acne, and the slim build of a college cornerback. He posted beefcake photos on his Facebook page that showed only his cut abdomen, or his bare chiseled arms wrapped around an AK-47 assault rifle. "I'm the kind of kid who has to have fun no matter what I'm doing," he told me.
One of the fun things he liked to do was drive around Baghdad and blast Led Zeppelin and the Notorious B.I.G. through the open window while rocking back and forth in his seat, fingers splayed. Coté was also something of a health nut. On the front seat of his "gun-truck," he carried canned peaches and assorted nuts, along with his locked-and-loaded AK and a dog-eared copy of "Beyond Brawn: The Insider's Encyclopedia on How to Build Muscle and Might."
Coté made $7,000 a month protecting supply convoys in Iraq, but it wasn't just money that had brought him back. He had been in the 82nd Airborne Division, completing combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Army, he enrolled at the University of Florida as an accounting major. It should have been utopia for him: beautiful women, fraternity parties, the kind of perpetual sunshine he never saw in Buffalo, his home town.
But he found that Iraq still raged inside his head -- the intensity of it, the sense of purpose that it had given him and that couldn't be replaced, anywhere. He tried to replicate the experience with binge drinking and multiple women and escalating risk. One night, half-drunk, he put his Ford F-150 on cruise control, climbed out the driver's side window and swung himself into the bed of the truck. He stood looking out over the cab like Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic, the wind buffeting his face, as the truck hurtled into the darkness at 70 miles per hour, steered by the panicked fraternity brother who'd slid into the driver's seat. Eventually, Coté climbed back in through the passenger-side window.
"I don't belong here," Coté told a college friend one day.
And before anyone knew it, he was gone.