Get Rich or Dye Trying


If you've got a little time to set aside, Pat Michels has an evocative profile of Preston Wheeler—the KBR contractor whose near-death in Iraq is one of the most-seen war videos on YouTube. He went into the country to pay his bills.

By 2005, he was deep in debt from house expenses and medical bills, and didn't see a way clear. If there were two kinds of folks in Wickes, the ones with something and those without, he could see which group he was headed for.

Preston knew of people from town who had driven trucks in Iraq. "They came back no problem, so I decided maybe I'd go over there and I wouldn't have a problem," he says. "It wasn't desperation. I just knew that was a lifetime opportunity to go make that kind of money. I wanted a home so bad, I was willing to pay that price."

In 2005, when his second wife admitted to cheating on him, he asked her to move out, making his choice to leave simple. Summing up his state of mind at the time, he remembers thinking, "I got nobody else. It's just me, and I'm gonna do this or get killed."

And for all his trouble, it looked like it worked.

Ironically, Preston may yet end up with the money he wanted from Iraq—possibly much more—precisely because of the attack. The claim he filed under the Defense Base Act, a World War II-era law providing generous worker's compensation for civilians supporting the U.S. military overseas, may settle soon, and he could end up with a lump sum that would more than pay for a new house in Wickes.

His lawyer, Gary Pitts, who represents many contractors in similar claims, says Preston is lucky, legally speaking. Some of Pitts' clients are fighting drawn-out claims with American International Group Inc., the insurance carrier for KBR, over soft-tissue and back injuries that are tougher to document than two bullets in the right arm. In disputed PTSD claims, Pitts says, the case often comes down to opposing opinions from the contractor's therapist and AIG's in-house expert. "It's a shootout every time," Pitts says. Preston's case is unique because if AIG asks him to document his trauma, all he has to do is push "play."

Take it away, Smedley Butler.