Saturday, January 27, 2007


We (us that is, America) have never used contractors the way we are now. We're using more people, doing more jobs in more dangerous conditions than we ever have. It's hard to get good statistics on just how many people are over there helping re-build, doing security work, transporting things, planning things, building things. They aren't all Americans of course, many are Iraqi, or people from nearby nations. Many are Australian or British, German or French.
[edit: Thanks for the link Susie (see comments). There are estimated to be 100,000 contractors working in Iraq alone. The government also hires contractors in Afghanistan, Columbia, and other conflict areas.]

Naturally it's not the first time contractors have been involved in a war zone, so you'd think someone would have figured out how things should be done by now. And in fact, there are some laws and guidelines in place, things that were written decades ago that spell out some of what needs to be done to make sure contractors are protected.

Every company that contracts with the government is by law required to carry insurance. This insurance is meant to pay the contractor or his or her family in the case of injury, death or disappearance. Under the terms of this law, the government has to make sure the company does carry insurance before they are allowed to do business. Then, in case something happens, the family simply files a claim with the labor department, and the labor department makes sure the insurance company pays up. Simple and tidy.

The problem is, the government didn't bother with that. No one checked to see if the companies were covered before contracts were signed - they just let them in. So Kirk's company didn't have insurance. C didn't even know they were required to do so. I'm not sure about the higher ups in the company - they had previous experience in Afghanistan, so in theory they should have known, but if the requirement wasn't made clear to them then either...

There is no system in place that makes sure contractors know their rights before they enter a war zone. There's no group that is there to help a family or contractor after a tragedy to tell them what to file, how to work with various agencies, what help might be available. There's nothing.

I know everyone has heard the stories of corruption, of companies making millions through graft, bribery and fraud. Sometimes I think those stories have colored the way people view anyone who works as a contractor - as though they believe that everyone over there is a thief and a liar.

But many of them are family people. Many of them, like Kirk, like Ryan Manelick, are former military who already served their country once and are now doing it again. Yes, many are there because the pay is good, but they are also trying to do a difficult and dangerous job because it needs doing.

It's a shame, then that the government that sent them there isn't doing everything it can to take care of them.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Thank you

Thanks - to all of you, to family and friends who came from all over to remember Kirk and share your stories. It was wonderful to see you, wonderful to hear what you had to say.

For those who couldn't come, we thought of you, and we know you were thinking of us.
I'm trying to get a transcript together of the talks that were given so I can share them with the people who wanted them, but it will take a little time so please be patient.

What I can do is share a few of the moments that I remember, a few more stories to tell. It's not that these are the most important, or even those that struck me most at the time. These are just the ones that I'm thinking of now.

Kirk's brother spoke. He talked about Kirk's honesty, his integrity. But the story I particularly liked was when he talked about how they would fight as kids. I had heard Kirk's version of some of this so it was fun to hear from the 'little' brother as well. They would really tear into each other, he said, but Kirk would never punch him in the face. Nope, he would just smack him. Because Kirk, said his brother, he was kind.

Now... I never had a brother, so I admit I don't own a copy of the male dictionary. and I'd have to take S's word on this definition of kind, but I noticed that while many of the women in the room were laughing, but shaking their heads, many of the men were laughing and nodding in approval.

A colleague of Kirk's spoke as well, a man I feel I know quite well although I've only met him twice now. He had worked with Kirk in Virginia, during that endless frantic year. He shared a view of Kirk that most people in the room had never seen. I know it made our son smile when he heard this man say that Kirk was the finest analyst he had ever met.

But it made the rest of us laugh out loud when he told us about a guy in their unit who had bought a suit to go for his first civilian interview. He was awfully proud of himself, and had come in to show off and get everyone's opinion. There he stood, J said, like a big... purple... dinosaur. Everyone was trying to be kind, of course, trying to be nice and give him some confidence. But a bit of a crowd was gathering, as you would expect when something very large, very purple, and sporting a cheerful tie spotted with dolphins is in the room. J couldn't remember just what Kirk sang, very quietly, but whether it was 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine,' or 'I Love You, You Love Me' the effect was the same. J responded with a dolphin squeal... I think things just got worse from there.

Kirk's best friend from California spoke. Kirk tended to form extremely close friendships, but this one was unusual. They shared, initially, a military background that gave them something in common, but then something happened to S's family. He talked about that, about the bonds that happen in struggle. Kirk was the person S called when he first heard the news that would shatter his life; S was the person Kirk called from Turkey, from Iraq. S read from Henry V, paraphrasing the words before the gates of Agincourt:

"But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive...
...This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother...
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

My mother talked about her impressions of Kirk over our 15 year marriage. She talked about the words that came to mind when she thought of him, the picture his memory painted, from the day she first met him, long before I dated him. I saw different faces light up as her words reflected memories of their own.

And afterwards other people had a chance to say things that they needed to say, that others needed to hear. Over again I had people mention to me how good it was to hear from such diverse people, to hear diverse versions of who Kirk was.

It was a good day.

Thank you.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


I just submitted Kirk's obituary to the local paper. Just one of a long list of things I didn't imagine myself doing at my age - heck, at any age really.

I was thinking about what an odd thing it is to do - paying to write a few words that are meant to sum someone up. Naturally, as I'm sure anyone would do, I had to go look up the etymology of the darn word. (Do you want to hire me? I speak dead languages and know what 'etymology' means!)

Obituary: 1706, "register of deaths," from M.L. obituarius "a record of the death of a person," lit. "pertaining to death," from L. obitus "departure, a going to meet, encounter" (a euphemism for "death"), from stem of obire "go to meet" (as in mortem obire "meet death"), from ob "to, toward" + ire "go." Meaning "record or announcement of a death, esp. in a newspaper, and including a brief biographical sketch" is from 1738. A similar euphemism is in O.E. cognate forðfaran "to die," lit. "to go forth."

So before 1706 no one bothered with the whole litany of life and survivors thing. Maybe it was a great newspaper coup with some brilliant marketing mind putting together the miracle of cheap press and the strange fact that nothing sells like death.

I've read a few obituaries recently in a market-research kind of way. It's an odd sort of writing - there was one gentleman who apparently managed to 'pass on' "without tasting the fear or pain of death." I rather wish they'd said a bit more about that; I'd like to know how he managed it. There was a woman who boldly suggested that instead of flowers, people should contribute to her family's trust fund. I quite liked that one - she'd written it herself in the first person and someone had just filled in the dates and things. Talk about having the last word.

Kirk's is, I'm afraid, pretty plain. I felt that the obituary (I'm starting to hate that word, but I think if I just use it three more times in this post it'll suddenly become really, really funny. Maybe) was the place to say what Kirk would want said about him. The memorial, the one we're having this weekend, that's where we can say what we want. But the obituary should say what was important to him. Of course, once I decided that, it became nearly impossible to write anything that seemed adequate. My family tends to save things - understatement that is perhaps explained best by saying that they catalogue and save Instant Messaging conversations - so there's a horrifying feeling that writing this simple obituary (two more to go) is Talking To History. Still, the kids helped me, and we did our best.

It's just... well, if you feel the need to clip it out of the paper and stick it in some scrapbook or something, keep in mind that Kirk... well, Kirk couldn't really be summed up that way.

Maybe we should have just said:

Kirk von Ackermann. Father, husband, friend.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I have a tendency to assume that other people are privy to my internal dialog - that everyone must know what I've already thrashed out inside my mind. It leads to complications naturally, and it's not helped by the fact that I often feel I'm stating the obvious so I don't spell things out. Maybe I need to say out loud why I started this blog, and exactly why I'm unsure what to do now.

When I began writing, Kirk had been missing for two and a half years. I had no feeling that the investigation was going anywhere, no way of knowing if the situation would ever be resolved. I also realized that there was a sort of power in the hands of the CID (people who, by the way, had treated me with enormous respect and care) who could re-write Kirk's entire life and character with their conclusion.

It's hard to articulate this properly. I was trained as a historian, and part of that training is learning that everyone who writes history or participates in it (through interview, diary - whatever) brings a bias, and that bias changes how history is remembered. Sometimes that effect is very small, but sometimes one person or group has enormous power, and can write history in their own vision.

I realized that the CID had that chance. They could, with their conclusion, decide not only what had happened to Kirk (and how could I say they were wrong?) but who he was, what he was thinking, why he did what he did.

So I began to write some of Kirk's story. I can't write it really, and I think that's obvious because of all the times I've had to say "I don't know exactly what happened..." or "Kirk couldn't tell me..." But I could write about the Kirk I knew.

I made the choice right from the start to keep my name, and the names of other people out of it. It was, basically, a love letter to Kirk, and all the rest of us are supporting cast.

Finding the moment to end isn't easy. I'm selfish - I didn't want to end with Kirk's disappearance because I didn't want that to define him. But I know that's not really the end of the story, and I do realize that there are other things that could be told.

So now I'm not sure what happens next. I've finished what I set out to do. I certainly haven't written all of it, but the narrative has come to an end point. Obviously the story goes on, obviously there is a great deal more that happened, but it happened once Kirk dropped out of the story, and it's hard to know what to do when the hero leaves the stage. I was always comfortable with Kirk as the star of the show - I'm not at all happy about stepping into that role myself.

I have to decide if there's a valid reason to go on. I need to figure out why I would tell what happened next, and I need to believe that this is the right medium to do it in.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Year

Hmmmm.... I've gotten enough emails that I think I have to post!

I'm still here, still checking comments and (eventually - I didn't have internet access over the holidays) posting the ones that were actual comments and not advertisements for pyramid schemes or dodgy plans to enhance body parts I don't actually have.

I'm not sure what happens next. There have been a few requests to go on with the story, but since it sort of ceases to be Kirk's story and (inevitably) becomes my own, I'm not quite sure what to do about that.

But thanks for the emails and the warm thoughts. We'll just have to figure things out as they happen.