Soldier of Misfortune

Three years ago, Paul Reuben went off to Iraq—not as a member of the U.S. military, but as a highly paid private security guard. after he was captured by Iraqi insurgents, his family realized the true cost of that decision.

 

Patrick REUBEN was asleep on his couch when the phone rang. It was a Thursday afternoon, and Reuben was at home in New Richmond, Wisconsin, fighting the tail end of a staph infection that had spread from his leg to his bloodstream. Between the fatigue and the drugs in his system, he was wiped out, and he had to strain to hear what the caller was saying. But two things came across clearly enough. The caller was from the State Department, and he had a question: Did Patrick know where his brother was?

It was November 16, 2006, and Patrick’s twin brother, Paul Reuben, was supposed to be on his way home to Minnesota from Iraq, where he had been working as a guard for a private security company. Five days earlier, in fact, Paul had called his brother’s house and spoken to Patrick’s wife, Jen. He said that it was time to get out. He was quitting the security job. He was finally coming home.

Jen expected Paul to be happy, or at least relieved. But Paul, normally so lighthearted and irreverent, didn’t sound relieved. He sounded spooked. That morning, a man wearing an Iraqi police uniform had looked him in the eye and vowed to kill him.

“Paul, you have to get out of there,” Jen told him.

Paul didn’t disagree. “I love you guys, I love you guys,” he told Jen, before adding: “I’m sorry for anything I ever did.”

But that was almost a week ago. Patrick had wondered why Paul hadn’t turned up already, but he’d been too sick to call and ask why. Now, on the phone, the man from the State Department offered an explanation.

“We think he’s been kidnapped,” he said.

And that was it. The official offered no other information. Not where it had happened. Not how. Not why. All he said was that someone would be in touch. Patrick hung up the phone and turned to Jen.

“So what do we do now?”

Paul Reuben

IF PAUL REUBEN had been an active member of the U.S. military, Patrick probably wouldn’t have even have had time to ponder the question. For one thing, he would have been contacted immediately by someone to explain what had happened. Then, a whole network—a system of helpers, counselors, and liaisons empowered by the vast resources of the government—would swing into action on the family’s behalf.

But Paul Reuben wasn’t a member of the military when he was captured. He worked for a private security contractor, which meant that in the eyes of that government, he was little better than a hired gun. There was no network. In fact, it took Patrick the rest of the night just to figure out how to contact Crescent Security Group, the Kuwaiti company Paul had been working for in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, there were other things to worry about. Jen and Patrick realized that Paul’s twin teenage daughters, Bree and Casey, hadn’t yet heard the news, and they could end up hearing about their dad’s abduction via television. The couple called the girls’ house in Andover, hoping Paul’s ex-wife, Kathy, would pick up. No such luck. The girls were hanging around in expectation of Paul’s return. They called Kathy at work to tell her the news.

Kathy raced home. When she arrived, a fake smile plastered on her face, she announced she was taking the girls out to dinner. She hoped that by the time the family got back from the restaurant, there would be some solid information, something to calm their fears. Instead, they returned to a message on their answering machine. Kathy’s sister had just received a call from Good Morning America. The twins moved toward the TV, but Kathy stopped them. “Girls, I have something to tell you.”

In New Richmond, news trucks began pulling up outside Jen and Patrick’s house. The couple huddled inside, too scared to go out and give reporters the sound bite that might make them go away. The State Department official had cautioned Patrick not to talk to the media. The government didn’t know who Paul’s captors were. If they were religious extremists, the family might inadvertently say something to offend them.

On CNN, the story looped endlessly. Every few minutes, a picture of Paul’s round, smiling face flashed on screen. For a while, Bree and Casey called Patrick every time the anchors mentioned torture. But mostly, the family just watched and worried, hour after hour, until long past dawn. In the morning, they figured, someone would surely call and tell them what happened in situations like these: what they needed to do next; what they could do to help get Paul home. But the call never came.

HE WAS pretty typical, really. Paul Reuben was in Iraq because his life was in a holding pattern. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the work there. He did: the camaraderie, the adrenaline. But the truth is that, like the other men he worked with, he never would have ended up 6,000 miles from home if his life hadn’t veered off course. “They’re all there because they’re at a point in their lives where they have issues,” says Jen Reuben.

Patrick and Paul grew up in south Minneapolis, sons of a UPS driver. Patrick was actually born first, though it was the last time he did anything first, he likes to joke. “After that, I was the follower,” he says.

The boys’ mother had always encouraged them to go into the military, and after graduating from Roosevelt High School, both Reuben boys joined the Marines, mostly because they figured it to be the most challenging branch of the service (though the closest either got to combat was the two weeks Paul’s reserve unit was called up during the first Gulf War; the fighting was over before he left Camp Lejeune in North Carolina).

In 1994, Paul got hired as a police officer in St. Louis Park, a job that, while hardly making him rich, afforded him a little rambler in the suburbs and some expensive toys: a snowmobile, a motorcycle. Outgoing and garrulous, Paul was a charmer who could make friends almost anywhere he went. But he was also a drinker. And while he managed to keep his job through one drunk-driving episode, a second incident, in 2003, cost him his badge. By then, his marriage to Kathy had ended (though the two were still living together), and he found it difficult to pay his bills and child support—let alone to spoil his daughters the way he liked—on the money he made doing the odd jobs he was able to land. Iraq was the answer to his financial woes. It was also an escape.

It was actually Patrick who first heard about the gig, from a childhood friend who’d worked over there. When he learned how much private security guards were getting paid in Iraq, he knew Paul would be interested. Besides the financial benefits, Paul had enjoyed being a Marine. “He liked the idea,” says Patrick. “He was trained. He had specialized skills. He was good at it.”

He also wasn’t unique. As of this year, there are as many private contractors in Iraq—about 130,000—as there are American troops. Most of those civilians perform the same jobs they did at home, everything from catering to bridge-building. But approximately 30,000 are like Paul, working for companies under contract with the U.S. government to perform some of the war’s most dangerous jobs: providing security to civilians, supplies, and even, at times, uniformed soldiers.

The outsourcing of duties once performed by the military has been one of the most controversial aspects of the war.

Private security firms operate on the margins of both U.S. and Iraqi law, and while some of the guards employed by the firms have extensive experience (the most sought after are veterans of elite branches of the military), many do not. The contractors earn anywhere from $600 to $1,200 a day, a fortune compared their counterparts in the military, but not always a good deal. Many lack the benefits the armed forces provide, despite performing a potentially deadly array of duties.

There are no hard numbers on how many private guards have been killed or how many Iraqis have died at their hands, but it’s safe to say both tallies are in the thousands. In the most notorious incident, in September 2007, guards from the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. A month later, the FBI reported that at least 14 of the 17 victims had been killed without justification. Five of the Blackwater guards involved in the incident are now facing manslaughter charges in federal court.

After he decided to go, Reuben signed on with a British security company, but it folded not long after he arrived in the Middle East. He then got a job with another company, Securiforce, but was eventually laid off. In early 2006, Reuben went to work for Crescent Security Group. Headquartered in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Crescent was owned by Franco Picco, an Italian businessman who got into the security business to protect the trucks that supplied the food concessions he ran at military bases inside Iraq.

Within the security industry, Crescent had a reputation as a bottom-feeder. It was known for taking on especially risky jobs, cutting corners, and skirting the rules. It also didn’t pay as well as the first two outfits Reuben worked for. Even so, Reuben felt he had little choice but to stick it out with the company. He told his family that he wanted to stay in Iraq long enough to earn money for a down payment on a house, to buy a Hummer, and to get his daughters Gucci watches. Beyond that, he had no idea what he’d do with the rest of his life. Even marrying a second time, just before he first left for Iraq, had little effect. Relatives say he and his second wife fought so much that he often talked about divorce. On his periodic visits home, he would ask Jen and Patrick if he could move in with them. He even talked about getting back together with his first wife, Kathy. He could never make a decision, though. Each time, he just went back to Iraq.

 

 

 

WHEN HE RETURNED to Iraq after his last visit to Minnesota, in July 2006, Reuben found a different country from the one he had left. The insurgents had become more desperate, less predictable. The ambushes started to come on a daily basis, and Reuben’s escapes became more precarious. His car was bombed. He watched as a buddy was shot in the face.

At the time, the Crescent guards were moving supplies for the Italian military, making daily runs to Tallil Air Base, located about 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, along a highway know as Main Supply Route Tampa.

Slicing through the heart of southern Iraq, from the Kuwait border to Baghdad, MSR Tampa is one of the most crucial supply routes in Iraq. It is also the most dangerous. The terrain is as parched as Mars, with temperatures along the way often topping 130 degrees. Periodically, waves of dust swell up from the desert and blot out the sun, making it impossible to breathe or see. Insurgents use the terrain and the weather to their advantage, swarming out of nowhere with little warning, spraying vehicles with gunfire.

By the summer of 2006, MSR Tampa had become less a highway than a scorched gauntlet, too exposed and too dangerous for anyone who didn’t absolutely have to use it. Virtually every convoy came under some kind of attack. It was anyone’s guess who was behind the assaults. The Iraqi insurgency wasn’t one guerrilla army with a unified aim, but dozens of different nationalist groups, each with their own agenda. Foreign military and security forces were the chief targets of the most violent organizations, but they also struck at Iraqi security forces, whom they viewed as collaborators. One of the insurgents’ favorite tactics was particularly insidious: They liked to ambush convoys by posing as Iraqi police.

In October 2006, one of Reuben’s fellow guards at Crescent, Shannon McCullough, videotaped one of the supply runs. As the video starts, the guards are clearly exhausted and scared, with nervous radio chatter between the different trucks punctuated by periodic machine-gun fire.

Then: “Shots on the right,” someone reports.

The guards return fire. The camera flips over as the convoy crosses the median to avoid one of the burning cars that appear every few hundred yards as the vehicles speed along the road. Until the camera is righted again, the Crescent logo on the truck’s hood—a white diamond inside a black rectangle—is reflected in the windshield.

The procession comes to a halt. One of the trucks being escorted has been hit and is leaking fuel. While the convoy idles, a sandstorm rolls in, making the video seem like it’s being shot on some sort of grainy moonscape. All you can see of people are fuzzy silhouettes.

Off camera, a voice inquires: “Paul, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m alright,” comes the reply. “We’re good.”

“Motherfucker,” the first speaker yells. “Just one fucking day, leave us the fuck alone, motherfuckers. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Yeah, buddy, hammer down.”

ON MONDAY, November 13, 2006, Paul Reuben called his daughters to tell them some good news: He’d be home for Thanksgiving. He talked to Bree first, telling her he just needed to do one more mission before he packed up and headed back to Minnesota. But she knew something wasn’t right. She could hear his voice shaking as he spoke. She burst into tears. Casey then got on the phone and tried to bully her father out of his plan. “Just come home now,” she said.

THE SUPPLY RUN for that Thursday was typical assignment for Crescent: Five gun trucks would escort 37 tractor-trailers to Tallil Air Base to pick up equipment for the Italian military.

Reuben was behind the wheel of the silver Chevy Avalanche at the head of the procession. In the seat to his right, mission commander John Young fielded reports coming over the radio from two other members of the team, a pair of Americans sent ahead in another vehicle to scout. Two other gun trucks would bring up the rear. A fifth truck would drive alongside the semis, floating up and down the length of the convoy.

Nose to tail, the line of vehicles stretched a solid mile. That was far too long to guard effectively, especially without more muscle, but that was Crescent’s way. In keeping with its low-rent reputation, the firm tended to run lean, sometimes dangerously so.

And the manpower situation was about to get worse. Between missions, the Westerners working for Crescent stayed at a villa in Kuwait City, Kuwait. From there, they would drive to the Wolf’s Den, a staging facility just over the border inside Iraq. There, they’d pick up weapons, translators, and Iraqi guards, who performed the most dangerous duties on the convoy, such as manning the machine guns mounted in the pickup beds. The Iraqis were not as well paid as their Western counterparts, and they made up about three-fourths of every crew.

When Reuben and the other members of the Crescent team got to the Wolf’s Den that Thursday morning, however, just one Iraqi man was waiting, a translator the Westerners had nicknamed John Belushi. It was an inauspicious way to start the assignment; one or two Iraqis not showing up might have been expected, but all of them? Their absence meant that the convoy’s first line of defense—the guns in the truck beds—would be unmanned for the duration of the run.

Brad Ford, a former co-worker of Reuben’s who went on to train police in Afghanistan, says he can’t understand why the Crescent crew agreed to keep going. “That was a grave mistake,” he says. “The company should not have sent that convoy out. That had ambush written all over it. But the company doesn’t make money when movements are cancelled.” Young, the mission commander, “should have protested and driven back to Kuwait,” Ford says. But Young didn’t, for reasons that will probably never be known. Instead, the convoy motored toward Tallil.

At the border town of Safwan, not far from the Wolf’s Den, Iraqi police insisted on scrutinizing the paperwork for each of the tractor-trailers. By the time the last semi was pulling out of town, the men in the point vehicle radioed to report an Iraqi police checkpoint, set up under the route’s first bridge.

Checkpoints tended to spook the guards. Stopping was always hazardous on MSR Tampa: Even when the checkpoints weren’t ambushes, the guards sometimes had to surrender their weapons so the police could verify that they were legal. Crescent’s sometimes weren’t.

Young directed the entire convoy to skirt the checkpoint—to cross the median and continue north on the southbound side of the highway. A little farther on, just before another bridge, the chain of trucks crossed back. When the last gun truck radioed the all-clear, Young ordered the semi drivers, most of whom were Pakistani, to pick up speed.

Soon, though, the guards on point spotted another checkpoint, one they hadn’t encountered before. At the base of a bridge, a Chevy Lumina had been parked across the highway. Men in Iraqi police uniforms flanked the car. This time, the convoy stopped. It was 12:30 in the afternoon.

As soon as the convoy came to a halt, men in camouflage and ski masks came out of hiding, swarming the trucks. They pulled the Crescent guards out of their trucks, stripped them of their guns, their ammunition, and their phones, and forced them to kneel along the road.

The most reliable description of what happened next comes from an account written by Andy Foord, a Crescent guard who was alone in a gun truck at the back of the convoy. Initially, Foord didn’t have any way of knowing what was happening. He couldn’t see the front of the convoy, and he couldn’t hear anything on his radio. The attackers had ripped the Motorola radios and satellite tracking systems from the Crescent vehicles at the head of the line.
Foord, frustrated that he couldn’t see or hear anything, turned his truck perpendicular to the road so that he could have an unobstructed view down the length of the convoy. Just as he got into position, though, he saw a white pickup race toward him from around the other side of the procession. The pickup, carrying 10 insurgents, was closing fast. Before Foord even realized what was happening, he saw muzzles from automatic weapons poked into the cab of his truck, aimed at his head. Noticing that a finger on one of the triggers had started to tighten, he leaned back as far as he could. The bullet narrowly missed his head.

Foord stomped on the accelerator, threw the wheel to the right, and hit the panic button on the truck’s satellite-tracking beacon. He then tried to radio the rest of the crew to tell them that an ambush was in progress. When he got to the head of the convoy, he pulled aside an American guard, Jonathan Cote, to explain what had happened. Cote was confused. He told Foord that he thought the police were simply conducting a weapons check. As the two tried to figure out exactly what was going on, a handful of well-dressed civilians stepped out from under the bridge. They ordered the men in ski masks not to shoot anyone.

The attackers separated Reuben from the rest of the Crescent guards, forcing him to the pavement near one of the semis. From time to time, one of the captors would walk over to Reuben and slap him on the back of his head or shove him to the ground. The only reason they were treating him differently, Foord figured, was because Reuben was black.

The insurgents then handcuffed three guards, and used some cloth tape to bind the hands of three more. By the time they got to Reuben, they had run out of tape and handcuffs, so they bound him with a power cord ripped from one of the vehicles.

As the guards were being rounded up, one of the insurgents got a phone call. He started yelling—something that sounded a lot like “amricky.” The attackers pushed five of the guards into the SUVs and sped off. Foord and a Chilean guard, Jaime Salgado, were left behind. Moments later, the presumed cause of the panic became clear: Two U.S. military Humvees appeared on the horizon.

Nothing in the survivors’ accounts explains why the men went ahead with what in retrospect seems like a suicide mission. “I look back and I think, how the hell did it happen?” says Jen Reuben. “I mean, if you wake up in the morning and none of the Iraqis show up for work, doesn’t that tell you something? Also, you never set your gun down. You never stop for anything. What happened to what you know?”

 

 

RESPONSE TO NEWS of the incident wasn’t entirely sympathetic. The popular perception of private security contractors is that of latter-day mercenaries drawn to a war zone by a mixture of greed and bravado. It is true that the men were there at their own initiative. But it’s also true that the industry owes its existence to U.S. policy. In 1991, an estimated 9,200 contractors participated in the first Gulf War. By January 2008, estimates of the number working at any given time in the Iraq war ranged up to 160,000.

Those numbers reflect a chronic troop shortage. But they also speak to a mantra of privatization. The rationale is that it’s more cost-effective to pay a premium to private contractors to swab latrines, dish out pizza and tacos, guard diplomats, and rebuild Iraq’s pulverized infrastructure, than it is to maintain a large peacetime military.

Of course, the military answers to an elected commander in chief and to U.S. law. And in theory, it takes care of its own. None of this is true of private war-zone contractors. The House of Representatives has passed
legislation to make the industry more accountable—both financially and in its conduct toward its employees and the Iraqis they encounter—but the measure has yet to come to a vote in the Senate.

Kidnapping or taking a U.S. citizen hostage is a federal crime—the purview of the FBI, and subject to prosecution in an American court. According to Patrick Reuben, Paul told Crescent that Patrick was his next of kin. And so in the days after the abduction, it was Patrick whom the FBI approached to ask for Paul’s personal items so they could have a record of his DNA. They told him to call with questions.

Because its investigation into the abductions is still open, the FBI can offer only the most general comment, says Special Agent E. K. Wilson of the agency’s Minneapolis office. “We have agents on the ground in Iraq and we continue to work this as a priority matter…in coordination with the U.S. military, the U.S. Department of State, and Iraqi security forces,” he says. “As far as the role of the local office, the FBI is sympathetic to the strains that the family has been under and the ordeal they’ve gone through, and we’re here to function as a liaison between the FBI and the family.”

In the past in situations like these, folks back home had little choice but to wait and worry. But cell phones, the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle have made the world smaller, and the families of the missing Crescent guards quickly realized they were getting less information from the FBI than from the men’s comrades.

A few days after the abduction, one of Paul’s friends sent Patrick a copy of Andy Foord’s written report of the abduction. Patrick called the FBI. “I said, ‘Hey, I got this report and you all aren’t talking to me.’” He says the agent’s response was to demand to know where he’d gotten the document.

The problem for Reuben’s family soon became not a dearth of information, but a glut of it. They were inundated with rumors, hypotheses, and first-hand information—with no way to test their veracity. On November 22, 2006, for example, the British staged an “airmobile force” raid on a police station where they believed the men were being held. Two Iraqis were killed in the operation, but the hostages didn’t turn up.

Back home, the hostages’ families were flooded with reports. There was a rumor that the captors had killed one of the guards, an Austrian, Bert Nussbaumer, as they fled the police station with the other four. That turned out not to be true, but it contained enough details to be plausible. Similarly, they heard that the men had been taken out into the desert and killed in reprisal for the raid, that the insurgents targeted Crescent because it hadn’t paid its Iraqi guards and because it owed money to the Iraqi police.

One of Reuben’s buddies finally pushed through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the raid. In response, he was sent a copy of a British intelligence report quoting sources saying the hostages were initially taken to Safwan, the border town where the ill-fated mission had started and where several of the stolen vehicles had turned up. From there, they were thought to have been split into two groups and moved to Basra, some 28 miles to the north. Then they were supposedly moved frequently: a mosque, a tomato farm, possibly to the Border Police Customs House.

In December 2006, a few weeks after the abduction, the captors released an audio recording of the men asking their relatives to repudiate the war. Another video, this one made the day after Christmas, followed in early January. “I’m 39 years old, or 40; I’m not quite sure of today’s date,” Reuben told the camera. (His birthday was eight days after the kidnapping.) “I’m from Buffalo, Minnesota. I’m married. I have twin daughters, they’re 16. And I have a stepson that’s 16.” His tone of voice was flat but, like everyone but Cote, he appeared unharmed. In the video, the National Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a group unheard of before or since, took responsibility for the kidnappings.

The communiqués gave the families hope. Sometimes kidnappers wanted to ransom the trucks and drivers back to the security contractors who employed them. Sometimes, they wanted media attention for their cause. In either case, as long as the kidnappers wanted something, they would keep the men alive, the Reubens figured.

In February 2007, the State Department started holding weekly Monday afternoon conference calls with all five families. Not long after, Paul’s wife, Keri, demanded to be the sole Reuben participating, according to the rest of the family. Yet Jen had developed strong ties to the parents of another captive, Josh Munns, so she was able to get a full report after each call. Like Paul and Patrick, Jen had a degree in law enforcement. Before she and Patrick had kids, she worked as an investigator for a law firm. She kept a meticulous log of everything she heard. “I took notes on envelopes, paint chips, whatever was at hand when the phone rang.”

In March, the families learned that U.S. troops had raided a house and found a piece of paper with the captives’ names on it, save Young’s. The name of Ronald Withrow, a private contractor captured at a fake checkpoint near Basra a month earlier, was also on the list. Other than that, there wasn’t much out there. “Basically, it was the same old stuff: ‘We’re working on it,’” says Jen. “Nothing specific.”

The conversations with the FBI were even more frustrating. Every family got different information, so they began to compare notes: “We would try to fill in the gaps,” says Jen. “We would take all of the information and put it together the best we could.”

In April, relations between the Reubens and the FBI seemed to break down completely. The agents seemed irritated that the family had independent sources of information. In particular, they warned them about their involvement with a local man, Mark Koscielski, who had offered to help them.

The owner of a south Minneapolis gun shop, Koscielski does business with a lot of Twin Cities cops. He knew both Reuben brothers, and he had their mother in a firearms-safety class about a year before the abduction. A one-time candidate for mayor, Koscielski was also an anti-tax activist, and an energetic conceal-and-carry campaigner. After the kidnapping, he put up a website called Save5.net.

Almost immediately, he says, he began hearing from friends and colleagues of the Crescent crew. “Things started to roll in via FedEx, mail, e-mail, and phone calls,” he says. “It got to the point where I had all this information, and it didn’t look good.”

In late March 2007, Koscielski bought himself a ticket to Kuwait and lined up appointments with his new contacts. By the time he got there, he says, word had gotten around. There was a message waiting at his hotel from Franco Picco, the owner of Crescent. Picco sent a car, and the two men ended up talking for hours at the villa where the guards had lived. On his last day in Kuwait, Koscielski had several hours to kill at the airport, so he stopped anyone he could find who looked Western and showed them the Crescent guys’ photos.

Koscielski’s involvement created a divide among the hostages’ families. Some, Jen Reuben among them, wanted to tell him to get lost. They had no proof that he actually knew anything about the kidnappers, much less what would offend or persuade them, she argued. Plus, she worried the families might not be hearing much from the FBI because the agents didn’t want an amateur involved, potentially mucking things up. (About this, too, Special Agent Wilson can offer only a general comment: “We try to discourage any such action that would put private citizens in harm’s way in efforts to rescue overseas hostages or obtain information on their behalf.”)

Others had the opposite view. The families felt as if they’d been strung along for months, hope dimming all the while. Koscielski knew things, things that turned out to be true. His stories were sometimes fantastical—he hints darkly that the U.S. government had reasons to want the men to stay missing—but they were consistent. And at least he was doing something.

In May, three U.S. soldiers were kidnapped in a rural area south of Baghdad. The military swung into action, sending 4,000 troops who would “not stop searching until we find our soldiers,” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told the Associated Press. A $200,000 reward was offered for information on their whereabouts.

The guards’ families were incensed. “Right off the bat, they were out looking for them and offered a reward,” complains Jen. When private citizens are abducted, U.S. policy is to ignore ransom demands, and to distance themselves from cases where civilians choose to negotiate. She says the FBI went even further in the case of the Crescent men: “We were told if we offered a reward we would be prosecuted for paying terrorists.”

The five families had developed an informal majority-rules system for making decisions, and the May episode galvanized support for Koscielski. They had been pressing the State Department for months to have thousands of leaflets offering a reward air-dropped over three cities in southern Iraq. Koscielski proposed an end-run on the feds. They’d taken four months to do what the local Kinko’s could do in two days, he argued. So he organized a pancake breakfast fundraiser in St. Louis Park.

A month later, in August, Koscielski asked the families for $38,000 for one of his contacts in Kuwait. The money would pay for some information, and to cover the cost of air-dropping fliers throughout the region where the men were supposedly being held. Koscielski is adamant that none of the money went into his pockets. Even his detractors in the Reuben clan believe that to be true. They were not so sure his overseas contacts were as scrupulous, however.
Among the families, though, the majority thought that trying something was better than doing nothing. But no one could afford to contribute. Keri Johnson-Reuben had quit her job as a Hennepin County juvenile probation officer, too stressed out to work. Without child support, Kathy Reuben was having a hard time supporting Bree and Casey. Right after the kidnapping, Crescent sent Keri $3,500—two weeks’ pay—but then nothing. Paul wasn’t known to be dead, so there was no life insurance, just $36,000 from a state crime victims’ compensation fund that both families had to share.

Kathy read the newspaper every day looking for ideas. She tried to get child- support enforcement to go after Crescent, but the company shut down shortly after the kidnapping. “I visited military family support sites, but most just offered to do yard work or other volunteer help,” she says. “Some you could call for groceries, but some said no, because Paul wasn’t in the military. It’s embarrassing.”

Despite a second trip, this one to Jordan, Koscielski’s scheme to leaflet Iraq never got off the ground. In retrospect, the entire crazy episode makes a certain kind of sense to Jen Reuben. The hostages, she notes, had wives, ex-wives raising their kids, long-divorced parents, and checkered pasts that propelled them into the war: “How do you expect five families to come together and do something right?”

Jen had a vivid memory of watching American Terry Anderson’s release after years of captivity in Lebanon on TV. She always thought Paul’s sunny personality would insure that he was one of those few hostages who made it home. “I had these blinders on. I thought, he was such a nice guy. He gave money to the [Iraqi] kids, he was good to everyone. So I had this little story in my head about how he was just bored, he was just waiting for them to come get him. I kept saying, ‘He is going to come home and be the man he always wanted to be. He would take care of his girls.’”

IN MARCH, someone delivered five decomposing fingers to U.S. officials in Baghdad. Four of the fingers belonged to the Crescent crew. “I was like, okay, this is either a really good sign because the message could be: We still have them and we want something,” Jen recalls. “Or it could be: Stop looking for them because they’re gone.”

The next morning, Jen and Patrick’s 3-year-old woke with a nightmare, screaming that someone was cutting things off of her hands. In the pit of her stomach, Jen concluded the grisly dream was bad news. Over the past 16 months, she had steadfastly insisted to Bree and Casey their dad was coming home. Now she couldn’t. “I had to switch and say, ‘He always loved you guys.’”

The girls considered the episode a bad sign, as well. “I thought, He’s done, that’s it,” says Bree. Days later, the contractors’ buried bodies were unearthed in different graves near Basra, where they had been taken.

Bree, Casey, and Keri went to the airport to meet the plane that carried Paul’s body home. They were directed to a hangar. Bree couldn’t stand to get out of the limo. “I felt like I was hanging off a high building,” she says. “You know how you’re so scared you can’t move? I thought I wasn’t going to get my breathing back. I thought I was going to pass out.”

By contrast, Casey couldn’t stand not to go into the hangar: “There was a cardboard box. They opened it up and they were going to put the flag on his left shoulder. So they lifted him up. I just saw this black plastic bag. He was curled up, rigid, and he was so skinny.” Six men in Navy uniforms loaded the body into a hearse.

It’s still not clear how Reuben was found or by whom, but Casey recalls someone at the hangar saying he was in the fetal position because he had been buried upright. He was barefoot, dressed in a Lakers jersey and sweatpants. He was carrying half a pack of Iraqi Marlboros, something that comforts Casey: “You know, at least he was still smoking.” Later, the girls got the things from Reuben’s room at Crescent’s Kuwait City villa. His olive green toiletry kit still smells of soap and aftershave.

Before Reuben’s body was flown to Minneapolis, an autopsy was performed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The exam revealed that he was missing two fingers. One stump was fully healed, the other was fresher. He’d been beaten, most likely by the butt of a rifle. There were deep gashes in his right shin and numerous broken bones. His eyes and nose were missing, probably the work of animals.

LOOKING BACK OVER HER NOTES and e-mails, Jen Reuben believes she has sorted fact from speculation. “I really don’t think the guys were meant to die. Why would you release audio, video, fingers if you didn’t want something?” she asks. “I think something went wrong.”

Whatever the kidnappers’ plan, it went wrong nearly immediately, she thinks. Their plan in ruins, she has decided, the insurgents sold the Crescent guards to someone else who made and bungled a second attempt at ransoming them. Whoever had them one year after the abduction gave up and killed them. It’s as close to an answer as the Reubens have gotten.

Bree and Casey are 18 now, with high cheekbones, big dark eyes, and their father’s imposing height. They have Paul’s pension and, finally, some life-insurance money, so they have modest options. But neither has recovered enough to start thinking about what they want to do. Without a solid understanding of what happened, they’re having a hard time moving on. “I want to know who found my dad in that hole? How did they find him?” says Casey. “I feel like I deserve to know all of that stuff no matter how horrible it is. I want to look at the man who killed my dad and say, ‘Why? What purpose did that serve?’

“There’s just so much stuff that’s unsaid,” she continues. “There’s just so much unfinished business, so many things I want to know, so many things I want to ask him. I’m still waiting for him to come home. He’s still not dead for me. Having those answers would do it. It would be real to me.”
 

Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.

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