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

My editor got on the line and asked me the name of the security company I had been traveling with the week before.

"Crescent Security Group," I told him.

"That's what I thought," he said. "Listen, there's a story on the wires that Crescent was ambushed in southern Iraq. Five of their guys are missing."

He said the names hadn't been released.

I felt lightheaded, nauseated, the way you do when a plane suddenly loses altitude.

I raced home to call Coté in Kuwait City. I got a recording, first in Arabic, then in English: "The person you are trying to reach is unavailable or out of the coverage area."

Coté and the four others had been kidnapped on the same stretch of highway where, one week earlier, we had traveled together, and it was inconceivable that his life would be a 23-page book.

Suspended Lives

Four months after the kidnapping, the phone rang next to Francis and Nancy Coté's bed around 3:30 a.m. Nancy was closest to it, and the sound shook her awake, filling her with dread.

It was Franco Picco, the owner of Crescent Security Group, calling from Kuwait. Francis was sitting up now and Nancy handed him the phone. The sound of Picco's thick South African accent hit Francis in the gut. But Picco told him he was "expecting good news." He said he had sources who had seen Jon and the other four men alive. He said he couldn't be more specific. But he left the impression that their nightmare would soon be over.

Days passed, then weeks, and then months. But the Cotés never heard from Picco again.

How do we meet our friends, the people we come to love?

I met Francis and Nancy Coté because their son had been kidnapped in Iraq and I was one of the last people to have seen him alive.

Francis, 50, was a stocky bear of a man, with a goatee and a thick sweep of graying hair. He had spent 20 years in the U.S. Marines, fought in the Persian Gulf War and retired as a chief warrant officer. Now he worked as a program manager for IBM. Nancy, his second wife and Jon's stepmother, had joined the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1980, just the 50th woman in history to do so; she had risen to become resident agent in charge of the DEA's Buffalo division.

After the kidnapping, I watched as they suffered with dignity and grace, humor and faith, their tragedy indistinguishable from those of other families with loved ones in peril in Iraq, and yet totally different because it involved a business.

Once Jon and the other four men went missing, Crescent Security suspended their pay, as if they had taken unauthorized vacations or several months of undocumented sick leave. For Coté, a college student, it didn't mean as much, but the others had dependents, including children.

The families of the Crescent hostages felt powerless, desperate, their lives suspended. The State Department had assigned a representative from the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management to keep them informed. Her name was Jenny J. Foo, and she called each family once a week from her office in Washington.

But there wasn't much to report. Foo was cheerful and compassionate, and she called every week without fail. But the families soon realized that she was a functionary, her primary role to placate them, and their frustration grew. The FBI, not the State Department, was running the investigation out of Baghdad's Green Zone, and that, too, was confounding. The kidnapping was the largest involving Americans since the start of the war, and yet the probe was centered 350 miles from the crime scene, nowhere near the region where it was thought the hostages were being held. Agents would spend 90 days in Iraq and then hand off the case.

Nancy Coté was outraged by the apparent lack of urgency surrounding her stepson's case. Using her contacts inside the DEA, she prodded the government to quietly change its tactics. Nearly a year after the kidnapping, the DEA put its own man on the case. Unlike the FBI, the agent, who had no previous experience with kidnappings, embedded himself in southern Iraq.

He would stay there so long he became known as Joe from Basra.

A Macabre Delivery

A few months into the job, Joe from Basra traveled up to Baghdad to update the FBI and other U.S. government officials on the case. While he was there, he received a call on his cellphone. A contact told him that a courier was on his way to the Basra airfield to deliver proof of the missing Crescent hostages.

It was Feb. 11, 2008 -- Jon Coté's 25th birthday. Joe called Basra to inform a Special Forces team that the courier was on his way.

The man arrived at the airport gate carrying a small plastic bag. He was escorted into the highly fortified compound, where a Special Forces team leader, wearing plastic gloves, opened the bag carefully and felt a chill run through him.

Inside the bag were five severed fingers, each in its own Ziploc bag. The courier told him that they belonged to the missing Crescent hostages. The fingers were caked with dirt and badly decomposed -- more fingertips by now than fingers. Later, an analysis in the United States determined that one of them belonged to Jon Coté.

Francis and Nancy initially felt that the macabre discovery was proof that Jon was alive. "If it was a corpse, wouldn't you just take the whole finger?" Nancy told me. "I really do think it came off a live body."

But weeks passed, and soon the bodies themselves were handed over. On April 24, after the remains of the other Crescent hostages had been recovered, four cars pulled up in front of the Cotés' red-brick house in suburban Buffalo. It was a bright spring day. The agents walked through the kitchen and sat down at a patio table on the deck outside with Francis, Nancy and Jon's older brother Chris.

A female agent with long red hair looked directly at Francis. She told him that tests had been completed on the last body and it had been determined that it was "your son, Jonathon Coté."

Unresolved Ambiguity

The official American death toll in Iraq that day was 4,047. The number did not change when Jon's body was identified.

Five years into the Iraq war, the private security contractors weren't counted, alive or dead, even though hundreds and perhaps thousands had perished.

It creates a lot of ambiguity when you hire people to fight your war.

I never really resolved the ambiguity. For me, the story of Jon Coté became symbolic of the war, with all its ennobling heroism and moral emptiness. It became inextricably intertwined with my father's death and my own vague reasons for abandoning my family to return to Iraq, as well as the tragic decisions, large and small, that we all make, as individuals and as a country.

I liked Coté the moment I met him. But it was an ugly business he had gotten himself into, perhaps the ugliest business there is. The U.S. government had fostered it, a manifestation of our failures in Iraq, a method for shifting responsibility and hiding the human toll.

As Iraq came apart, not soon to be pieced back together, the private security contractors helped confine the war to the margins of our consciousness -- tens of thousands of shadow soldiers, their roles and identities as murky as the war itself. You didn't have to draft them, or count them, or run them by Congress.

You didn't even have to know they were there.

On May 2, 800 people crammed the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Williamsville, N.Y., for Coté's funeral. The crowd included more than a dozen members of his platoon from the 82nd Airborne, several fraternity brothers from the University of Florida and friends and relatives from around the country. But not a single representative of Crescent Security Group.

Francis rose, pressed his left hand to his son's casket and walked heavily to the podium.

In the middle of his long eulogy, his voice echoing through the church, he took a moment to describe the strange and unfamiliar world in which Jon had been killed.

The employment of private contractors "hides the true costs of war," Francis said. "Their dead aren't added to official body counts. Their duties -- and profits -- are hidden by closemouthed executives who won't give details to Congress as their coffers and roles swell."

"Although Jon was not in the armed forces at the time he was killed, he was again serving our country in this war," Francis said.

Fainaru is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 2007 about the role of private security forces in the Iraq war.

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