Jack Frazier, a rugged 6-foot-4 ironworker, took on the toughest construction jobs in the world. In Saudi Arabia's 130-degree desert he rigged 50,000 tons of steel for a $2 billion petrochemical plant. He nearly lost use of his hands while supervising a refinery job in Kazakhstan's 40-below winter, but finished months ahead of schedule.
When Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Frazier was on a massive oil project in Iraq for Bechtel Corp., the U.S.-based construction conglomerate. Held hostage with other Americans in Baghdad and denied his diabetes medicine, he went blind in one eye. But Frazier returned to the war zone to help Bechtel put out the oil fires Hussein's army set in Kuwait.
The mountain man, friends called Frazier, an ex-Marine who hailed from Montana and looked a bit like Kenny Rogers. He was, in his colleagues' eyes, a working-class hero.
Today the legend is disappearing. "I've shrunk," Frazier mutters in disgust from his narrow bed in a nursing home here. His arms and legs are withered, raw and ulcered. More than two months in captivity without medication caused severe, irreversible health problems, doctors say, and "rendered him a cripple," in the words of a federal court judge.
At 65, Frazier is much younger than the home's other frail patients, but like them, he is numbering his days. "The way my body is deteriorating, I may have a year or two at the most," he says.
He sobs for several minutes. "It still gets to me."
"Take a couple of deep breaths," says Deanna Frazier, rubbing her husband's pale shoulders. A spiky-haired optimist in a denim skirt and vest, she believes that Jack and his fellow victims of Iraqi cruelty will soon see justice.
After all, last year U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson awarded Frazier $1.75 million, to be paid from frozen Iraqi accounts in U.S. banks. After all, the president himself declared that evildoers like Saddam Hussein must pay for their crimes.
Just one problem. The Bush administration, for all its loathing of Hussein, has been reluctant to allow any former hostages -- including scores of "human shields" -- to receive the Iraqi money. The State Department opposes legislation that would let 177 victims collect $93 million in court-awarded judgments.
Some $2 billion in Iraqi accounts is kept off-limits "in the interest of the nation as a whole," says a State Department spokeswoman. "Using the blocked assets to pay judgments will not deter terrorism."
Frazier has another reason to be bitter: For years he's fought with Bechtel, one of the largest construction companies in the world, over workers' disability claims for diabetes complications, nerve damage and circulation problems that began with his detention in Iraq.
This all started a dozen years ago, when April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was a controversial headline name, and network anchors were reporting on the fate of frightened Americans sleeping on the floors of her residence.
Does anyone even remember that there were 800 Americans held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait?
Checkout Time The call came to his Baghdad hotel room at 10:30 p.m. "Get ready. We're going into hiding," a Bechtel supervisor told Frazier. An hour later, another call: "We'll meet at the elevators."
It was Aug. 18, 1990 -- 16 days after the invasion -- and Hussein had barred Americans and other foreigners from leaving Iraq and Kuwait. Working with the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization on an oil refinery and petrochemical plant about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Bechtel had 108 employees and dependents in Iraq.
That night, the Canadian Embassy sent out the first warning that Iraqi secret police squads would be dispatched to round up hostages from five hotels.
In the lobby of the Ishtar Sheraton, a number of Bechtel employees gathered with overnight bags and small supplies of food and water. Around midnight, under the suspicious glare of the hotel staff, the workers headed for the waiting taxis and embassy vehicles.
"Where are you going?" one of the Iraqis asked, attempting to detain them. Frazier felt someone snatch a gym bag from his hand. He kept going. He thought he'd only lost some canned food, crackers and fruit.
In that bag were his DiaBeta pills, a medication used to stimulate insulin production and control diabetes. It also contained Coumadin, a blood thinner, and blood-pressure pills. Frazier, then 53, was still playing basketball and racquetball -- but had already undergone heart bypass surgery twice (diabetes can cause hardening of the arteries).
He was not the type to let his health hold him back. He cultivated a macho image -- complete with cowboy hat and full-length leather coat back in Montana. As a younger man he once fell 85 feet from a girder, knocked off by a crane. He broke 26 bones, spent nine months in a body cast, but didn't leave his trade.
His slogan: "You don't find no wimps workin' iron."
August at April's Bechtel people from other hotels and various expatriates found diplomatic sanctuary in Glaspie's home near the Tigris River, several miles from the U.S. Embassy. The home had a manicured lawn, a pool and gardens, but just four bedrooms. Eventually 55 people crowded into the residence. They divvied up duties, sleeping spaces and food. Iraqi sentries with rifles and fixed bayonets were stationed at the front and rear exits.
The ambassador was on vacation. She'd decamped with her dog a few days after a July 25 meeting with Hussein that historians still ponder to this day. She cabled a report to Washington subtitled "Saddam's Message of Peace."
Some say Glaspie missed obvious signals that the dictator intended to seize Kuwait, which he claimed to be Iraq's "19th province." Glaspie, according to a Iraqi transcript of the meeting, told Hussein that the dispute with Kuwait was an Arab-to-Arab matter about which "we have no opinion."
About a week before the invasion, Bechtel tried to secure exit visas for its employees, according to Mel Hill, a manager who was on the company evacuation planning committee. He recalls getting an order from headquarters: "Move our people out. Tell the Iraqis it's getting too hot."
But Hill says oil ministry officials told him Hussein was bluffing. "They said, 'All he is doing is saber-rattling to scare the Kuwaitis. Don't worry about it.' " No emergency visas would be processed.
Some ex-hostages fault Bechtel for putting them in jeopardy, but anyone who takes such an assignment knows it can be dangerous. "It's what we do for a living," says one Bechtel supervisor with long experience in the Middle East.
After the invasion, Iraqi soldiers rounded up many Americans and other Westerners in Kuwait and shipped them to Iraq. Others took their chances, fleeing or staying in hiding. Reporting from Baghdad, Dan Rather of CBS called them "the hunted, the pursued -- pawns in this Gulf crisis."
100 Days and 100 Nights Inside the ambassador's house, Frazier led daily exercise classes. He made secret forays to obtain food in the nearby souks.
He cooked one day a week and scrubbed the upstairs toilets. He settled disputes, scheduled phone time and served as the "public relations man," arranging contacts with the international news media.
Though most of the hostages weren't physically abused, captivity instilled psychological terror. Showing who was in charge, the Iraqis periodically cut off the power and water. As Frazier put it in one interview: "You don't have to be in a 4-by-8 room with a bag on your head and your hands tied behind you to be a hostage."
One morning at 6, panic set in after someone picked up a radio report: All captives would be hanged that day. It proved false, but reinforced how little control the hostages had over their lives. Many grew depressed and felt expendable -- especially since U.S. officials had made clear they would not negotiate with Iraq over hostages.
In September, Hussein allowed wives and children to leave, but the husbands, lured out of their safe haven with the promise of exit visas, were captured and dispersed as "human shields" to protect against potential air strikes. Ten men were shipped to a house near a power station. Mel Hill was put in an ammunition plant with eight others.
"That lasted 100 days and nights, wondering if we we were going to be shot, torn apart or let go," Hill says. "Hanging, shooting, knifing, debauchery with children and women -- they did it to their own people and we knew it could happen to us."
As war talk heated up in Washington, Frazier and the remaining hostages in the house worried they could be bombed by either side.
"We were right across the river from one of Saddam's palaces, so we figured we were ground zero," says David Morris, a Bechtel worker who spent nearly four months in the ambassador's residence. He is now on full disability because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Frazier, who shared a bedroom with seven others, recalls awakening in the night to find a colleague sobbing at the end of his bunk. Some found comfort in confessing their frustrations and fears to the Mountain Man. "He was a pillar of strength," says one ex-hostage who still finds it hard to control his tears and asked not to be identified. "He would take care of everything."
U.S. officials tried to get medication into the house -- other men were ill as well -- but the Iraqis let nothing through. Stress aggravated Frazier's diabetes. He recalls sitting with colleagues one afternoon, grousing about not hearing more information from Bechtel, when he saw a yellow haze. It seemed as if a Venetian blind had been shut over his right eye.
His optic nerve was damaged; he would never regain sight in that eye. A poor diet further aggravated his condition. As the weeks wore on he dropped 50 pounds. Untreated, diabetes can damage every organ of the body.
A delegation of Iraqi American businessmen flew to Baghdad on a peace mission, meeting with Frazier and other hostages. After their plea to Hussein, the dictator released 14 Americans on medical or humanitarian grounds on Oct. 23.
"I have been a lot of places and done many things in my life," Frazier told a Washington Post reporter after landing in New York. "But I have to tell you, the most traumatic thing I have ever done was get in that car yesterday and drive away from my friends. That is something I will never forget."
He couldn't shake feelings of guilt. He felt he'd run out on the others. He says he cried for a week.
Frazier gave interview after interview, saying the hostages were being sacrificed by callous politicians. Washington said it did not want to cut deals with terrorists, but Frazier had seen for himself how government and corporate interests had cozied up to Hussein for oil.
"There has to be a conscience somewhere along the line," he said. He vowed to never let the hostages be forgotten.
A Proposal Frazier had also made a promise to a woman back in Whitefish, Mont. A couple of days after entering the ambassador's house in August, he taped a message for her with the help of a CBS camera crew.
"I'd like to have this sent to Deanna Frizelle," Frazier said, standing in the leafy courtyard of the residence, looking tan and fit in a Gold's Gym muscle shirt. "Deanna, I'd like to have you get in touch with my family and tell them that I'm fine, being treated good, and that under circumstances, things are as good as can be."
Then he added a surprise:
"Sweetie, I think we've gone long enough. When and if I get out of this, I think we should get married."
They were born in the same small town in Montana, delivered by the same doctor. At high school dances after games, she played piano and he played sax in a quintet called the Mellow Cats.
That was the mid-1950s, and Jack and Deanna were just friends. After high school, they married others, raised families and lost touch.
Until the summer of 1987. Deanna was at the Bulldog Saloon in Whitefish, helping to register classmates for their 30-year high school reunion, when a tall, gray-bearded guy ambled in.
"I said to the gal next to me, 'Who's that?' " Deanna recalls.
"That's Jack Frazier," she said.
Never shy, Deanna made her move. Jack studied her -- the short, teased hair, angular face, artistic jewelry -- with no flash of recognition.
"I'm Deanna," she blurted, "from the band. . . .
"Don't I even get a hug?"
She was near the end of a failing marriage, and Jack had recently separated. "It's going to be a long time before any woman puts her shoes under my bed again," he told Deanna as they caught up that weekend.
They exchanged letters and phone calls. One day Deanna loaded some clothes in her black and silver Seville and left her life in Montana. She moved in with Jack, then the manager of a crane company in Southern California.
The Workingman Frazier worked for Bechtel on and off for 17 years. Between jobs he was put on "holding status" -- unpaid but still considered an employee, getting benefits.
That was typical in heavy construction: You never knew when the next project would come along. For field guys like Frazier, a construction superintendent, overseas assignments brought higher wages, tax breaks, hardship pay adjustments and overtime windfalls: 16-hour shifts, seven days a week.
In 1989, a Bechtel supervisor who knew of Frazier's work in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s recommended him for a multi-billion-dollar Iraq project. He considered Frazier the best structural steel man he'd ever met -- meticulous and precise in his rigging calculations, devoted to safety.
In Iraq the job site sprawled over 30 square miles. The project promised to run for five to seven years -- a highly lucrative assignment.
Frazier thought Baghdad would be the last overseas Bechtel assignment he'd ever need to take.
Back Home After being freed, Frazier recuperated in the hospital for 15 days. His diabetes had progressed to the point where he now required daily insulin shots. That November, he went to Bechtel headquarters in San Francisco to videotape a message the company hoped would reach its 64 still-captive employees.
"Stu, I wanted you to know I've been thinking a lot about you," he said, addressing a company VP in the house. "And Tim, and Rich. Tom. Elkin. Gene. Merle. All of you."
He spoke of Bechtel's diligent efforts on their behalf. "They're trying, guys. And this is not a paid political statement. . . . I don't know if they're doing it right or not, but I know the effort's genuine."
Company officials set up round-the-clock command posts, put planes on standby and coordinated with diplomats trying to gain the captives' freedom. Bechtel also "took some actions we can't talk about," a company spokesman says today.
But it all came down to what the Iraqi dictator willed. In one of his periodic charm offensives, he allowed all remaining hostages to leave Iraq and Kuwait starting Dec. 9, 1990, about five weeks before the U.S. began bombing. "You have been victorious over an uncivilized and brutal ordeal," Secretary of State James A. Baker III later told a returning contingent of U.S. Embassy personnel.
But Deanna Frazier saw it differently a dozen years later: "Saddam didn't kill Jack when he had him as a hostage, but he handed down a death sentence."
Up to this point in Frazier's story the primary villain has been clear. But in his quest for compensation, he sees two other antagonists: his own company and the U.S. government. Both believe Frazier should get no handout.
In Bechtel's view, Frazier put himself in harm's way to make a buck. It has aggressively fought his workers' compensation claims. Its spokesman offers little in the way of sympathy.
From his wheelchair in the nursing home, Frazier responds: "They have shown me that loyalty, dedication and hard work mean nothing."
Snake Eyes After the Gulf War ended, some of the Bechtel workers freed from Iraq faced a dilemma. Should they ship out for Kuwait? The corporation had a contract to suppress hundreds of oil and gas well infernos there.
Despite blindness in one eye and reservations about working again in the Middle East, Frazier thought his diabetes was under control. He did not realize the degree of irreversible damage done to his heart and nervous system. The symptoms came and went.
And he wanted the money. He joined a team that backed up the firefighters, erecting housing and keeping track of machinery. He spent nine months in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
In 1992 he filed a disability claim in California for lost eyesight and other health problems. Attorneys for Bechtel and its insurer disputed his medical evidence. He eventually settled for $50,000.
He left the company for a few years, opening a saloon and casino in Whitefish called Jack's Diamondback. Patrons passed through double doors to encounter diamondback rattlesnakes in a terrarium -- stuffed but realistic. Deanna ran an attached restaurant with a view of Big Mountain. But the venture went into bankruptcy.
His maladies continued: Surgeons removed his gallbladder, his spleen and a kidney. When a Bechtel job came up in 1995, he took it -- flying to Uman, Ukraine, just two weeks after undergoing his third heart operation. He says he thought he would lose the position if he took more time to recuperate.
He helped dismantle Soviet-era ICBM silos, winning a Bechtel safety award and praise for supporting the 1996 "Construction Team of the Year," designated from more than 200 projects around the globe.
In 1997, a job at the Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan was running behind schedule. A supervisor requested that Bechtel give him the one man he knew could put up a massive steel structure in subfreezing conditions: Jack Frazier.
He went knowing the health risks. Frazier wrote a letter to Bechtel waiving "any claim I may have that the company acted negligently" in letting him work as a construction superintendent. But he did not waive "any workers' compensation benefits that might be available to me in connection with my employment."
It would be his last assignment. Co-workers recall that he tottered around painfully on leg braces, barely able to make it to his upstairs sleeping quarters. He lost feeling in his hands.
In February 1999, Bechtel terminated him. He was 61. He got a letter from the company's human resources department: Sign a secrecy agreement and turn in your badge. Not even a thank-you. "Sincerely yours . . . "
Compensation Around that time Frazier qualified as fully and permanently disabled under Social Security guidelines. (His federal check comes to $1,350 a month.) He also heard about a Washington lawyer, Daniel Wolf, who was suing Hussein in federal court and hoped to unfreeze Iraqi assets for the ex-hostages. Frazier signed up, one of the first clients. Eventually hundreds of others would join him.
Two years ago Jack and Deanna sold their home in Montana and moved to Lake Havasu City, a resort area in western Arizona, mainly for the warmth. Huge medical bills seemed to arrive with every day's mail.
Frazier decided to file a claim in California for disability benefits and medical costs from 1995 to 1998, when he worked for Bechtel. Doctors examined him for both the state and federal cases. Over the years, several experts would reach the same conclusions: Frazier's health woes started in captivity in Iraq and grew progressively worse.
Last December, U.S. District Judge Jackson awarded a dozen plaintiffs $300 million in punitive damages against "the defendant Saddam Hussein," who never answered the suit. The judge also parceled out compensatory awards totaling $9 million -- money the plaintiffs have some hope of collecting under legislation passed two years ago.
Frazier, who had suffered the greatest physical problems, got the biggest award: $1,749,000.
The California disability ruling came down on Oct. 25 -- 12 years 2 days after Frazier was freed from Baghdad. That judge sided with Frazier, too, saying the combined effects of captivity in Iraq and "the stress and strain of his [later] employment with Bechtel" caused him total and permanent disability.
The ruling means medical bills totaling $328,500 should be the responsibility of Bechtel or its insurer. The judge also awarded Frazier retroactive disability payments of $108,445, plus $490 a week for the rest of his life.
Jeff Berger, Bechtel's public communications manager, says the company's insurer will appeal. He also puts some further comments on the record:
"First off, know that Frazier wasn't 'sent' overseas after the Gulf War; he insisted on going," Berger says in an e-mail to The Post. "Frazier appeared to be more interested in the higher pay and tax advantages of an overseas assignment than he was concerned about his own health. . . . More than once, he insisted on working in places he later would claim to be injurious -- even when Bechtel offered opportunities elsewhere."
"Sour grapes," says Al Ufkes, Frazier's attorney, who faults Bechtel for dragging out the case by refusing to settle. "If they had acted earlier, the proceeds would have been more usable by Mr. Frazier, who now can't get much use of them at all."
That's a gentle way of saying that a dead man can't cash disability checks.
The Next Move A few months ago, Frazier found himself barely able to maneuver from the dinner table, let alone conquer the flight of wrought-iron spiral stairs in his Mission-style home.
Like the Marine Corps "Death or Glory" tattoo on his arm, he was fading. He'd stay in bed for weeks. He realized he was a burden to his wife.
It was time, he decided, to "hang John Wayne up in the closet." He moved to a nursing facility a mile away.
Some days his old schoolmates and colleagues drop by. Here's Don "Ducky" Lamb, a former Whitefish policeman and drummer for the Mellow Cats, dishing up jokes and a lunch of beans and rice. Here's Everett Dunnett, 71, who recently returned from the United Arab Emirates for Bechtel. He says of his colleague, "Jack did excellent work."
Here's Maj. Scott Frazier, an Army operations officer who has flown in from Hawaii to surprise his father. "He's the only one that looks like me, so he's the only one I claim," Jack says, smiling. Scott, 41, is one of three children.
Deanna Frazier, wearing a white cowboy hat festooned with rhinestones, arrives with news of her long-distance lobbying efforts on behalf of the ex-hostages. She is tracking an amendment that would allow victims of state-sponsored terrorism to collect compensatory damages from the blocked accounts. It has received strong support in both the House and Senate.
Deanna is upbeat, as usual. "Everything looks good on the legislation," she says.
If the money ever comes, she would use it to make her husband's final days more comfortable -- to bring him back home with live-in help, to pay for massages or other services. Deanna has massive medical bills of her own, stemming for six operations in recent years, including four brain surgeries.
Final Judgment Frazier's voice no longer rumbles deeply and forcefully as it once did. The hot core of anger is reduced to an weak ember. Today Frazier is so feeble he can't hold a pair of scissors to trim his own mustache.
"I know I'll never work again," he says, sitting limply in his wheelchair. Yet he wants to make this point: If he were able to walk the iron, he would never work for Bechtel. "I would not give them the satisfaction."
As for his government? He sees arrogant bureaucrats guarding their own power. "There's no compassion," he says. "The State Department doesn't know Jack Frazier from Adam. I'm one of the working class."
But that doesn't mean he wants to be forgotten.