Job takes Portales man to Middle East

Courtesy photo Portales resident Bob Johnston, left, and British Reconnaissance Officer Andy Recouski, retired, worked together in Iraq.

Liliana Castillo

Being a general contractor never meant looking around every corner or learning to sleep through bombings until Portales resident Bob Johnston decided to take his job international.

After seven years in the Army and 28 years of general contracting, Johnston became a prime candidate to be an Army contractor in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and possibly Yemen.

KBR Construction contacted Johnston and said they needed employees with experience for operation maintenance and carpentry. He had it. Not much of what Johnston experienced in the Middle East from Sept. 2008 through May 2010 was new to him, but he said it will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“All we did was work. Work, work, work,” the 64-year-old said. “And at night it was bombs and mortars. They shot our windows out every day. They had barracks we could go to but I never did. I stayed in my room. When it’s your time, it doesn’t matter where you’re at.”

Johnston said KBR has asked him to return to the region for another year.

“I think I might go. You get used to it, the bombing and shooting. It’s part of life,” he said. “It’s a pretty good deal if you just have the gumption to go over there.”

Johnston said about 400 KBR contractors arrive in the area each week and about 100 of them are on their way back a week later.

“You can’t blame them,” he said. “It’s not for some people.”

Johnston said the group of soldiers and other contractors he was stationed with became a family and they continue to stay in touch, even from across the world.

“I tell the new people,” Johnston said. “When they’re lying in their bunk trying to sleep, remember that all these soldiers are taking the same chance as they are. For their country. I tell them they aren’t alone over there but you feel alone.”

Johnston said the soldiers made protecting the contractors their first priority during a firefight or bombing.

“They were absolutely wonderful. I believe with all my heart that 99 percent of them would have took a bullet for us any time. That is courage beyond the call of duty. But that is the way they were to us,” Johnston said. “We ate slept and worked with the soldiers every day. They treated us well and I personally got many thank you’s from the soldiers for being over there and doing the work they did not have the people to do. When I was in the Army in 1966 we had no Army contractors, the Army did it all. Main thing is that the soldiers appreciated us and what we are doing over there and provided guidance and protection that we dearly needed.”

Johnston said his 23 months in the Middle East made him realize how good Americans have it.

“People have no idea the feeling you get when you finally step onto U.S. soil,” he said. “People just don’t realize what they’ve got here. When I was over there, I carried a gun all the time. You had to be on guard, all the time. If you were just sitting in a restaurant over there, you’d be surrounded by the military.”

Johnston lives on a farm in Roosevelt County, which is a much quieter life than the time he has and might continue to spend in the Middle East.

“At first it was an adventure,” he said. “And then it turns into a job.”