How to Plan for life as a Government Contractor in A War Zone

tank on railcarDamaged Tank, photo by Charles Buchanan

Thousands of Americans are being hired for US Government Contracts in Iraq or Afghanistan. I have been contracted on six US and one foreign government contract overseas. Things you should know and consider before taking a contract and when preparing to work in the war zone.

Things you'll need to have prior to deploying:

· Passport and several photo copies of the identification page.

· International shot record

· 90 to 180 days of prescription medicine.

· A direct deposit bank account.

· Debit and credit cards.

· Cash emergency funds.

· Power of attorney.

· Will.

Facts about living in the War Zone:

Almost all US government contractors live on military bases or in secure compounds, usually called FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Most are surrounded by concrete blast walls, guard posts, chain link fences and concertina wire (a type of barbed wire). Security is very strict with all contractors are required to carry (CAC) Common Access Cards as ID, basically military identification cards.

All travel is done by either armored convoy (with armored SUVs) or by helicopter. Helicpter is the normal way of travel for contractors in Afghanistan for safety and security reasons. All contractors travelling outside of compounds wear protective body armor vests and helmets while traveling.

In more dangerous locations you may be required to wear your PPE (personal protective equipment), which is body armor and helmets, during the work day or at least have it with you. Everyone is required to have PPE in their quarters. Some contracts require Biological and Poison Gas training and require the contractor to have a gas mask and protective suite also. All locations are subject to mortar or rocket attacks, some occasionally, and some almost daily. Warning systems and bunkers are provided for these events.

Px foodFast Food, Iraq by Charles Buchanan

Money and Shopping:

All locations have some access to a Post Exchange (PX), the Army Air Force Exchange (AFFES). The PX may be a tent, trailer or a building. The small ones have basics like soap, deodorant, candy, sodas, magazines, books, toothpaste and just necessities. The larger the base the more that is available, to include: TVs, computers, microwaves, irons, coolers, chairs, cleaning supplies, frozen meats, BBQ grills, clothing, games, DVDs, canned food, microwave food and military souvenirs. US Contractors have access and can pay with cash, debit or credit card for items.

Large PX stores will have $100 check cashing for cash, when funds are available. Local Military Finance will cash a check, if you are on your company list of authorized personnel, for $100 to $200. When they have funds available (sometimes not for weeks) you can get $20 over purchase, when checking out at the PX, if you use a debit card. You need this for spending at the local, on base, bizarre of local goods, and for on post fast food. Large bases have; Burger King, Cinnabun, Subway, Church's Chicken, Taco Bell, Nathan's Hot Dogs, Green Bean Coffee and Baskin Robbins (these are generally just the same as in the US but in a trailer).

What to bring to Iraq:

Bring enough clothes to cover several days wait for returned laundry. I usually try to have two weeks of underwear and socks. Reminder: The Middle East is generally extremely hot in the summer and can be pretty cold in the winter. Laundry service is covered on base contracts, but do bring your own laundry bags. What you forget you can usually buy at the PX. They normally sell civilian cargo pants, civilian shirts and blouses and boots and shoes for both men and women. Selections will be limited.

You must have enough prescription medicine for 90 days, if you take prescription medication. (Keep in mind that you should also have someone back in the states that can renew and send any additional prescription medication, they are not available for refill in Iby the military except in emergencies.)

Bring enough soap, shampoo, razors, shaving cream and personal items for thirty days. Although PX facilities are available, they may be out of certain items temporarily or you may not have access for a week or more. Bring your laptop, most places have internet access.. Bring envelopes, regular letter and card mail is free from the war zone to the US without a stamp. All mail from the US to Iraq goes to a New York address (APO) and must meet postal regulations (figure ten days to two weeks for mail). Bring sunscreen and bug repellent. I also recommend you bring an extra pillow, one set of single sheets and two pillow cases, and at least two towels. Bring an alarm clock.

Power is 220. and will burn up American 110 appliances, like your hairdryer or DVD player. The PX usually has 220 / 110 appliances but check the box. American items usually need a voltage regulator, again available at the PX. You also need to make certain you use a surge protector on all electrical items. Power has a tendency to go out unpredictably, on generators.

Laptop computers normally capatible for both 110v and 220v. They come with voltage regulators on the cord. Desktop computers need to be checked.

Documents to bring:

Current US Passport is a requirement. Have at least one copy of your passport photo page, this makes it easier to replace your passport if it is lost or stolen (keep it separate from your passport). You will need this just to get into the War Zone. Current social security card (most companies will want copies of this in country, so it is a good item to have). Current state driver's license, required to drive on US military bases.

You should have an international shot record, (tell your doctor you need one, they are yellow and your doctor should fill out all shots you have had). Keep your shot record with you and put all inoculations on it. This can save you having to repeat a series of shots.

Debit card, check book, credit cards and cash. Credit cards and cash are needed for emergencies, if you have to evacuate or you have a problem during travel these will be invaluable. The PX takes cash, checks, debit and credit cards. US Military Finance will take a check for cash (amounts vary) if your company submits the proper information for this service.

Copies of your current, up to date, resume, with copies of supporting documents and references with contact information. Many contracts have turnover of employees and will promote from within. You will need this information to put in for a promotion or to apply to change positions.

Documents at home:

Power of Attorney for your spouse, parent or other trusted individual. Limit this so they can pay bills or take care of emergencies, if you get injured or loose communications, they can still pay your bills for you, or handle legal issues on your behalf.

A Will, a war zone is a dangerous place, unfortunately some US contractors do die. Take care of your family. Most contracting companies offer life and casualty insurance that does cover war zone death and injuries.

Contractor Housing, Iraq prefab contractor housing, Iraq, photo by Charles Buchanan

Living conditions in Iraq:

Most US Government contractors in Iraq live in containerized housing. In Afghanistan housing ranges from rented Afghan houses, to tents.

Container living consists of a prefabricated building made of metal with one to two separate bedrooms. You may share a flush toilet, sink and bath in your living area or you may have to walk to a communal abolution unit (toilets, sinks and shower facility). Toilets may be PortoPotties*, plastic chemical toilets like you see at fairs and construction sites in the US. Bring flipflops, shorts and a bag for toiletries in case you need to walk back and forth for showering. Water for showers and sinks is not usually potable (drinkable). Water for brushing your teeth and drinking is available free of charge in plastic bottles.

In more primitive remote sites you may live in a tent with wooden floors and walls. All living accommodations for US Government Contractors will generally be air conditioned and have some kind of heater. Be prepared to live pretty basic at remote sites. Security, a cot food and a shower are the first priorities.

Typically you have a desk, a chair, a single bed with mattress and some type of wardrobe for your clothes. Bring a plastic trunk (available at Target, Walmart and other discount stores, as well as the Post Exchange in Iraq and Afghanstan) and a lock for your clothes and things you want to secure.

BBQ Iraq BBQ in Iraq, photo by Charles Buchanan


You will be a captive audience in the War Zone. No one goes outside the safety of the bases without a good reason and security. You do have free MWR facilities (Morale Welfare and Recreation) on all the bases. This goes from Red Cross free books, cards and letter materials, to recreation centers with free to use computers (internet cafes), phone banks (you pay) and free pool tables, cards, TV, DVD checkout and sports programs. AFN (Armed Forces Network) is available for a charge at most bases (sometimes provided by your company) and is free at recreation centers and dining facilities. Larger camps have swimming pools, hold sports rallies, have USO shows, may have a movie theater and hold events on base, they may also have a continuing education center for online education.

Internet Services will range from service in your room, to limited service in your work place, or an internet cafe at your company compound. MWRs generally have computers available on the internet for talking to your family by email and sending and receiving photos. Bring your own Laptop computer and check with your company before deploying to see what they offer.

Warning: Internet services provided by the US Government are restricted. No pornography, no personal use during duty hours and operations security is enforced. You will get rules about computer use in Theater (the War Zone). These guys are serious and the least that will happen is to get fired for violations.

SKYPE services, is an online video and voice program. This is a free download and if you and the computer you are talking to both have a video camera, you can have free SKYPE video chats. I have used this extensively for the last two years and it is fantastic.


US Contractors in Iraq will usually eat at a Military Dining Facility. The food is good and plentiful with a great variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, entrées and desserts. The larger the dining facility the bigger the variety. Steak, lobster, shrimp, hamburgers, chicken and fish are regularly served. The PX also offers meats for BBQ and sandwiches, frozen entrees for your microwave and a full line of non alcoholic beer and drinks. Alcohol is illegal in the war zone to US Contractors and US Military personnel in Iraq, as part of the US Government contracting agreement.

hmmwv Iraqi Army HMMWVs photo by Charles Buchanan

Final Comments:

Living and working in Iraq or Afghanistan can have its challenges, but it can be rewarding in both the satisfaction of supporting our troops, and in working with and directly helping the local people. I hope the information here helps you have a smoother transition to working in on a US Government Contract in support of the War Zone.

Tips & Warnings

  • Network with coworkers when you get overseas you are away from friends and family.

  • Keep contact by email, phone and mail with your family and friends in the states.

  • Download Skype into your computer if you have Internet so you can talk to the states for free or just pennies.

  • Don't bring guns or weapons to Iraq unless you're authorized.

  • Alcohol is illegal for US Government Contractors in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

  • Do not bring Pornography, or download it on a US Government computer or internet connection.
  • Don't speed on military bases it can cost you your job.