Youth from Odaipatti village in Tamil Nadu risk their lives to work as cooks in U.S. forward military bases.

Odaipatti may not be aware of it but the far-flung village, tucked away in the foothills of Megamalai in southwestern Tamil Nadu, has played a substantive role in subsidising U.S. war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many years, this fertile village, along with neighbouring Govindanagaram, has provided an army of formally trained bakers, cooks, and other catering specialists to various U.S. military bases in active combat zones for salaries from as low as $550 to $700 a month.

Bharathkumar Sekar is only 25 years old, but he is already a two-war veteran. He served as a head baker at the U.S. Forward Operative Base Kalsu, located in Iskandariya, Iraq, and later at Kandahar in Afghanistan. The equally young B. Thangaraj managed dining halls at U.S. army camps in Kirkush, Iraq, before moving to Helmand in Afghanistan.

E. Srinivasan, K. Manikandan … the list is long. Villagers tell me that by now more than 100 youth from the two villages have worked at military camps either in Iraq or Afghanistan or both, and those with the right qualifications continue to be recruited by U.S. military contractors.

“We knew we were taking risks. There were many rocket attacks inside our army camps. At times rockets even landed on top of my kitchen, Bharathkumar said, explaining that “it was bombproof.”

“The first set of instructions we received on arriving at the base was how to run to the bunker. As a routine we kept our passports on the floor by our bedside or kept it in our winter jacket hanging near the door so that we could pick it up when we ran for cover,” Thangaraj added. Both men said Indian workers had died in attacks, but this could not be independently verified.

Their pay did not include medical or life insurance, neither was there any clarity about compensation in case of death. That they could be summarily removed — sometimes with just three hours notice — in case of a health problem or vision difficulty was something the young men did not know about before taking up their jobs. They worked long hours and had days off, but could not venture out. “We spent our time in the gym, computer rooms and with secured telephone lines inside the military compound.”

This was not a problem for Bharathkumar. He worked out with bodybuilding exercises and looks fit now. But K. Vijayraghavan, who was with the water supplies unit at an army base near Baghdad, shed tears every day. “I had to. It was therapeutic, and helped me pull through three years,” he confessed.

Maze of contractors

If working in adverse conditions was tough, negotiating a web of contractors to get the job and reach the destination was a challenge in itself. From Mumbai, after local recruiting was completed, a commercial flight to Dubai or Kuwait was the next step. From these transit lounges, they were either moved by chartered flights to places in Iraq or Afghanistan or taken to Oman for the next leg of selection.

“When we landed at the base, for instance Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan in my case, passports and credentials were checked. A returning employee's track record was verified. If the army is not satisfied, the person could be asked to return to Odaipatti or wherever he came from. There is also a possibility of being detained by immigration in any of the transit points. All the money you spent would then be a waste,” one of them said. The amount could be as high as Rs.1.15 lakh to be paid to the local recruiting agents.

While these enterprising young men stayed for more than a year or two in Iraq, they are quitting their jobs halfway in Afghanistan without even completing a year. Not because it was dangerous. They learnt that their agents and contractors had recruited them for only half the salary of what the main U.S. military contractor, DynCorp International, for instance, pays. That is why Bharatkumar and Thangaraj and others are back in Odaipatti.

“While I was given $700 a month, for the same work Dyncorp was paying nothing less than $1,100 to its recruits. We were told that we could even earn as much as $1,800,” pointed out Thangaraj.

'Third Country National'

The U.S. government categorises people employed from outside the United States or the “local country,” , in this case Afghanistan or Iraq, as Third Country National (TCN). It also states that a TCN is entitled to the same benefits and allowances as the U.S. personal services contractors, which include “danger pay” and “involuntary separate maintenance allowance.” However, the reality appears to be different.

The DynCorp International website still carries announcements calling for applicants for the post of second baker in Afghanistan (last accessed on February 15). While the job description and other information are given, the remuneration details are missing. Men in Odaipatti, probably, will never know what they truly deserve.

“The need to earn is the reason which drives all of us to take big risks,” explains T. Anandaraja, one of the earliest to leave Odaipatti about two decades ago to work in a well-known Latin American nightclub in Dubai for 12 years. “I trained in one of the two catering colleges in Tamil Nadu then, left for the Gulf to earn. Looking at our economic success, many in the village took to this profession,” he described.

But why work in a military base?

“What we earn in the Gulf is not sufficient. The financial crisis in the Middle East has made it even more difficult. Army camps on the other hand offer a better salary, or so we think, and the demand is only growing,” Anandaraja explained.

Quitting midway on account of salary disputes could come in the way of their being recruited again for an army base by a sub-contractor company, but many have taken the risk in order to look for direct recruitment by the main contractors.

Bharathkumar, however, has found newer pastures. He is all set to take his baking skills away from the war zones. He is joining an international cruise ship which will sail in the far southern seas. But the diehards — and there are many of them in Odaipatti — continue to look at recruitment in U.S. army bases in Angola, Libya, Kazakhstan and South Africa.

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