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Soldier of Misfortune: Jonathon Coté's Life Counted, Even if He's Left Out of the Body Count in Iraq

"Basically, I was looking for a feeling I didn't have, and this job provided that," he told me as he steered the Avalanche down Main Supply Route Tampa, outside Nasiriyah. Coté drove in a T-shirt, with the window down. I wore a flak jacket. The sky was crammed with stars, and you could feel the warm night and smell the desert. Coté had his MP3 player on shuffle, and hip-hop and rap songs droned softly in the background. Coté tapped the steering wheel and bobbed his head as he drove.

He was telling me that he looked at his life like a book. "If the book is only 23 pages," he said, referring to his age, "I want them to be 23 really interesting pages."

It was his variation on an expression I'd heard over and over in Iraq: Come for the money, stay for the life.

For the mercenaries, the private security contractors, that was a way of summing up the million different reasons they were there. And why they kept coming back, including the reasons they couldn't articulate and probably wouldn't admit to if they could. There was the obvious: the camaraderie and the addictive thrill -- Iraq as a reality, not as an abstraction. But it was mostly personal. Whatever your story was, that's why you were there; it didn't much matter whether the story was true, or whether you told it to anyone but yourself, or whether it changed over time, every day even.

I had my own story, and maybe that's why I thought I understood why men like Coté kept coming back. At home in California, my father was dying of lung cancer, and my brother -- also a journalist -- was appealing an 18-month prison sentence for refusing to reveal the source who'd leaked Barry Bonds's grand jury testimony in the BALCO steroids scandal. My son, Will, had just turned 8.

And yet I, too, kept coming back. When people asked me why, I could only respond, "I just feel like I need to."

A Plan for the Spring

Journalism, as a profession, demands a balance of intimacy and distance. But I guess the balance shifted for me, and suddenly, after spending hours and hours with Coté, I found myself giving him advice.

I didn't really think much about it. Jon was 21 years younger than me; we shared the same birthday: Feb. 11. Like everyone else, I was mesmerized by him; he was like a force of nature. One of his friends said, "His heart was made from pieces of this world."

Coté had his whole life ahead of him. Crescent, as a going concern, was not even remotely safe; anyone could see that. In addition to the vulnerable pickup trucks, the company had left a trail of lawlessness throughout Iraq. Employees reported making fake military IDs to get unscreened Iraqis onto U.S. military bases. Crescent rolled through Iraqi towns, guns blazing, and smuggled weapons and liquor across the Iraq-Kuwait border. The company "medic" was a self-described alcoholic with no formal medical training who lacked such basic supplies as tourniquets. The "director of security" was a convicted domestic violence offender who was prohibited from carrying a firearm in the United States, but drove through Iraq with AK-47s and shoulder-fired antitank rockets. The company hired tow-truck operators and people who hadn't served in the military since the early 1970s and sent them out into the battlefield with guns.

"Dude, you gotta get out of here," I told Coté. "You gotta go back to school."

We were in one of the Avalanches, on our way to see a backroom Kuwait City jeweler. Coté had hired him to make a butterfly-shaped ring for his mother's birthday. She loved butterflies, he said, because they were so free, just like the two of them. He planned to give his mom the ring when he went home.

"This company is a mess," I told Coté. "I know sometimes you don't feel it, but you have everything in the world going for you. You don't belong here."

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