Milkshake man's war: roar of battle, whir of the blender

By: TODD PITMAN - Associated Press

RAMADI, Iraq -- He's seen more combat and casualties than many troops in Iraq. But he totes no weapon and his uniform at a U.S. base includes a tidy black bow tie and little paper hat.

This is the milkshake man's war.

"Too much bombs," said Abraham Chacka, a soft-spoken Indian who mans a single blender at a U.S. Army outpost in Ramadi -- which may have taken more insurgent mortar hits than any other in Iraq.

But, amid the battles, Chacka's serves up more than just Baskin-Robbins nostalgia 75 miles west of Baghdad. It's also a taste of outsourcing, Pentagon-style.

Chacka is part of a small army of Asian migrants recruited for U.S. military dining services around Iraq under deals that wrap together the ways of modern war, globalization and, some claim, greed.

The jobs were organized by a Saudi firm under agreements with Houston-based KBR Inc., a former division of Halliburton Co., which has come under intense congressional scrutiny for alleged overpricing abuses connected to military contracts for food and other services in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Other border-busting pacts in Iraq -- not touched by the KBR probes -- have brought in an international cast of characters such as private Peruvian commandos running Green Zone checkpoints in Baghdad and sniffer dogs being led by handlers from Zimbabwe.

For Chacka, it's simply about stashing away nearly $500 a month -- more than three times what he could earn at home -- and returning to spend it. "I pray to God to keep me safe," he said.

So far his luck has held. He was one of the 35 members of the first catering team at Camp Corregidor in Ramadi two years ago. Nearly a third have been wounded in rocket or mortar attacks, said Chacka's boss, Masih Uzzaman, who also works on the base.

There are now 51 staff members -- from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Chacka and Uzzaman arrived in Iraq shortly after the American invasion in 2003. Neither has left since. For the first two years, they were deployed at a quiet dining facility in Balad, outside Baghdad.

Uzzaman transferred to Corregidor in late 2005. Chacka followed a couple months later.

They both found a base under such threat it was completely engulfed in darkness at night. For good reason: It was smack dab in the middle of a war zone.

RPG rounds struck guard towers. Tracer-fire crisscrossed the sky. U.S. warplanes bombed insurgent targets just outside the base.

"All my guys were looking at me. They said, 'What's happening? Where are we?"' Uzzaman said, recounting his first day there.

So great was the mortar threat that soldiers -- until last month -- wore armored jackets and helmets around the base. Tamimi Global Co., the Saudi Arabian firm that employees the Asians, issued armored vests, but staff spurned them. Too hot, they complained.

In 2005, one bomb exploded beside a trailer where workers slept, injuring three. Another round struck wounded seven severely, including a man who lost his eyes and another who lost his legs.

No one has been killed. But there's been plenty of close calls. One worker was taking out the trash when a bullet ripped a hole in the rear of his trousers, just missing his flesh.

"We never stopped feeding soldiers, not a single time," Uzzaman said. "Even after seven of our guys got injured, we started serving 15 minutes later."

Through it all, Chacka has worked solo in a corner of the small mess hall. On a typical day, he goes through 15 three-gallon drums of Baskin-Robbins: Rainbow Sherbet, Chocolate Mint, Cookies and Cream and so on.

In February, he was named the dining services' Employee of the Month for "phenomenal" support to soldiers.

"Oh yeah, they love him," said Sgt. Eric Hutzell, of Ashtabula, Ohio. "Guys go out, get shot at, and come back looking forward to that ice cream. It helps with morale, eases the stress."

Maj. Dave Christensen agreed. "No matter how hard the day was, they know there's always that guy with the little paper hat waiting for them with a milkshake when they get back," he said.

One American colonel liked to joke that keeping the bomb-ridden supply road into Ramadi open was crucial because "that's where our ice cream comes from."

Uzzaman keeps a small collection of wartime souvenirs: two twisted bullet tips that pierced his trailer during a 12-hour gunbattle, and a jagged two-inch-long piece of shrapnel he pulled from the back of one of his crew after a mortar attack.

"Nobody likes to put himself in danger, but poverty can make you do a lot of things," Uzzaman said. "Everybody has dreams."

And Chacka?

If all goes well, he'll leave in December, buy a house and get married. "I no coming back here," he said, grinning.