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Overcoming student debt by working in war zone
September 15, 2012 4:10 PM   Subscribe

"If I had felt any unease that I was potentially exploiting a horrible situation for personal gain, it was short-lived. The next four months were the most stressful, difficult, and dangerous of my life until that point, and probably—hopefully—ever. ... On December 31, 2004, I achieved a couple of significant milestones: I made my final student loan payment, and I had a positive net worth for the first time in my adult life. Mortars, rockets, and car bombs aside, that was pretty satisfying."
posted by Brandon Blatcher (34 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I sincerely hope that's the opening voiceover of "Risky Business II"
posted by Sunburnt at 4:17 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I thought from the snippet in the post that the guy paid off his loans by becoming an arms dealer.
posted by kenko at 4:20 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


IT mercenary... kind of a new twist.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:24 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


*Looks at student loan balance*

Finally. A reason to vote for Romney.
posted by R. Schlock at 4:31 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


The system works!
posted by pompomtom at 4:33 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Billfold is a spinoff publication of the Awl. It often has pieces that are more interesting, conceptually, than the topics they're ostensibly writing about.

Wasn't there an AskMe answer by somebody who did something like this in Eastern Europe or Iraq?
posted by dhartung at 4:41 PM on September 15, 2012


The Billfold is a spinoff publication of the Awl. It often has pieces that are more interesting, conceptually, than the topics they're ostensibly writing about.

I hadn't seen it before, and am enjoying clicking my way through some of the stories.
posted by Forktine at 4:50 PM on September 15, 2012


There's something special about someone paying off their debt by doing mercenary work for a war financed entirely by debt.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:52 PM on September 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


I had a positive net worth for the first time in my adult life

Holy shit. I just thought about the combined student loan debts my husband and I have and the fact that we might someday like to buy a house (which might well be cheaper than his law school education) and realized that we may not have "positive net worth" until after we are retired. We are two intelligent, hardworking, responsible people with decent jobs. The only way we could get decent jobs was to pay a lot to be educated enough for them. That is unbelievably depressing. I mean, yeah, we're doing fine, but we may NEVER be debt free and if we are it'll probably be because my WASPy grandfather decides to leave his money to us instead of the children's hospital.

Jesus Christ, it fucking sucks to be responsible and hardworking and try to do things the right way and realize that you are ALWAYS going to owe someone money.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:06 PM on September 15, 2012 [28 favorites]


I once turned down a network engineering job in Kazakhstan because the backfill position was replacing the previous engineer who had managed to find himself dead. They wanted to pay me 275 thousand dollars, tax free, with a daily stipend, for 6 months of work over some year period.

My wife actually turned the job down. She said she'd rather us be in debt, I'm love, and fighting over money than have our children fatherless.

I still kinda feel like we could have used the money though...
posted by roboton666 at 5:25 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I remember getting really close to a job for Raytheon doing network admin stuff at the Pole base. Money was lovely, and it was 6 months on and 6 months off. Heck, if I had gotten that I would prolly still be married.
posted by Samizdata at 5:30 PM on September 15, 2012


This is really, really depressing. What a totally fucked-up thing.
posted by odinsdream at 5:34 PM on September 15, 2012


Whoa, he kind of buried the lede there:

I broke my promise to D.D. and rode a Blackhawk around Iraq dropping off duffle bags of cash.
posted by indubitable at 5:43 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Western imperialism wins again!
posted by Catchfire at 5:51 PM on September 15, 2012


This is really, really depressing. What a totally fucked-up thing.

Totally fucked up? Are you referring to the system by which our generation has been short-changed?

I'm sorry but I fail to see the supreme hardship that left this person with no other option. Leaving a landscape architecture program after investing a ton of money in it and leaving to go travelling whenever he got money...I'm sorry but this special snowflake pursuit of the perfect existence and then wallowing when you realize that what you should have done is nut up and accept the choices you've made. A lot of people *dream* of being in that position.

I had a buddy in university who dropped out because he 'wasn't ready to learn'. I knew right then he was fucked. Guess what? He's 40 and working in a shoe store.

There's certainly a problem with financing education, but this just smacks of hyperbole brought on by a hefty dose of entitlement.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:54 PM on September 15, 2012 [16 favorites]


doing mercenary work for a war financed entirely by debt

But it's good debt, right? Just like education loans and home mortgages!
posted by spacewrench at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Money was lovely, and it was 6 months on and 6 months off. Heck, if I had gotten that I would prolly still be married.

Going on these contracts doesn't solve problems in your relationships. It exposes them. I know whereof I speak.
posted by Etrigan at 10:00 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am happy to know that wars and their attendant miseries have given this guy the means to finally pay off his goddam debts. I bet his dad is glad, too. Now that he has enough money that he can piss away yet another boring job, maybe he and his goddam wife and kids can spend a few goddam weeks in Maui. Maybe he can write another superficial article, this time about how cool all the poor but awesomely happy surfer dudes turned out to be.
posted by mule98J at 10:54 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


If your only means of providing for yourself and paying off your massive load of unforgivable debt is to do a job you hate in a war zone, maybe defer having children for a while until things settle down?
posted by deathpanels at 11:16 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


If your only means of providing for yourself and paying off your massive load of unforgivable debt is to do a job you hate in a war zone, maybe defer having children for a while until things settle down?

I agree that people shouldn't have kids until they can pay for them, but I don't think that deferring children until you can afford them should be confined to middle-class people with college debt who need to go to war to be able to afford them.
posted by corb at 11:45 PM on September 15, 2012


Maybe he can write another superficial article

I thought it was a really interesting piece. He was a slacker with a lot of debt who took one of those weird left turns that many of us occasionally think about but never do - and he wound up in that strange world of very high paid but sort of normal jobs in very dangerous places. I disliked him a bit at the beginning but at the end, I found him pretty sympathetic. He seems like a decent enough guy and I'm sure that plenty of ordinary, slightly glib people wind up in war zones. I think the article was better for its "well here's what happened to me" tone.
posted by rhymer at 2:33 AM on September 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I know a lot of people who have lived this kind of life... and yes, there is a definite degree of privilege to most of them, as well as greed, flightiness, and a tendency towards wanderlust. They tend to suck at managing their finances in the first place, and tend to be more than a bit status-obsessed...

(Case in point... the idea that working in IT is, by definition, a dead-end job, as opposed to a career that can lead to much more and can pay very well indeed, if you get to know what you are doing, which there are *LOTS* of relatively inexpensive possibilities for. Working in IT is a special field, in that your degree matters less than what you know how to do. If only more careers were such meritocracies...)

Bbuuuut... they've also done rather important work under situations that others wouldn't want to face. I don't begrudge them the money, because the real waste went elsewhere. The first election in Iraq did, in fact, matter... as will subsequent elections, as the structure that makes free elections possible is of inherent value.

And yes, I completely believe that flying around Iraq with duffelbags full of cash isn't an extravagance, especially considering that at the end of each of those stops was a base with a few dozen Iraqi workers risking their lives to make $1000 a month... and, of course, money to pay the truck drivers, local merchants, etc. who were risking their lives too? Most of that cash did not go to the overseas contractor types, who suddenly found that they could balance their checking accounts, because they had large sums being wired into their personal accounts, and f-all opportunities to actually spend it.

(...and did I mention that -- outside of BIAP -- the ATMs in Iraq weren't working?)
posted by markkraft at 3:00 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I sort of related to the guy in the same way I tend to relate to the protagonists of Neal Stephenson's books - "You irritate me but I want you to succeed anyway".
posted by Ritchie at 4:18 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just thought about the combined student loan debts my husband and I have and the fact that we might someday like to buy a house (which might well be cheaper than his law school education) and realized that we may not have "positive net worth" until after we are retired

The recent housing crash notwithstanding, generally buying a house should have if anything a positive effect on your net worth. If you put say 20% down and get a loan for the rest, your net worth should stay the same because while you lose 20% in cash and take 80% in debt, you're also gaining 100% in the value of the house. From there, the house value should go up at a rate around the rate of inflation and your debt should go down so it shouldn't ever be a net debt unless you get underwater from the house losing more value than you've built up in equity.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:28 AM on September 16, 2012


Thats a awfully big "unless" though, bummp3s.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:16 AM on September 16, 2012


That was really interesting. And well-written to boot.

Thanks for posting it.
posted by sour cream at 8:38 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy shit. I just thought about the combined student loan debts my husband and I have and the fact that we might someday like to buy a house (which might well be cheaper than his law school education) and realized that we may not have "positive net worth" until after we are retired.

FWIW, taking out a loan to pay for a house won't reduce your net worth per se. You'll have debt, but the value of the home offsets it. Of course, if the home depreciates, your net worth will be reduced (but if it appreciates, it will be increased), and you'll have closing costs on both the purchase and sale.
posted by benbenson at 10:48 AM on September 16, 2012


This was a very good read and this is something I've thought about. There's adventure and money and high risk as events this week have shown.

This guy seems pretty normal to me. I know countless people that have spent tons of money on education in fields they now regret. It can be incredibly difficult to know what you'll enjoy doing for the rest of your life when you haven't actually done it. Most of us pick something and hope for the best. It's unfortunate that a bad (for you) choice is so expensive and a 'do-over' is even more expensive.
posted by shoesietart at 11:19 AM on September 16, 2012


I hadn't seen it before, and am enjoying clicking my way through some of the stories.

Previously.
posted by homunculus at 2:30 PM on September 16, 2012


Thats a awfully big "unless" though, bummp3s.

The value of the house usually ends up being a major percentage of someone's total assets when they buy a house, so it is a big risk in terms of declining property values having a big impact on net worth. But my point was that in general owning a home is neutral to someone's net worth, unlike things like student loans, car loans, and credit card debt that are going to have a negative impact on net worth. So it doesn't make a lot of sense to consider it as being a major block towards having a positive net worth, since it's actually more likely that the house would slightly increase in value while the mortgage is being paid down and will be a pretty consistent way to build up positive net worth.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:47 PM on September 16, 2012


This is fascinating. I would actually be really interested in contracts like this. Are places still recruiting for similar gigs? How do I find them?
posted by DarlingBri at 3:19 PM on September 16, 2012


Hm, some interesting attitudes and judgments expressed in this thread about the people who choose, as civilians, to go work in war zones. I am actually typing this right now from Afghanistan, being myself one of those people (not IT, but still basically just normal boring work with better though by no means astronomical pay than if I were home because of the conditions). I am here solely to pay off my house, which, though a modest place with a regular mortgage, was purchased unfortunately something like a month before the entire market took a nose-dive, landing me pretty severely underwater. In the last 6 months, I have managed to right my upside-down mortgage, something that would not have been possible for a good long while were I still stateside. My husband and I have no other debts any longer, though we don't have kids either so that probably helps.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 3:21 PM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


If your only means of providing for yourself and paying off your massive load of unforgivable debt is to do a job you hate in a war zone, maybe defer having children for a while until things settle down?

I am confused by this comment, seeing as how that's exactly what the writer of the article did. Perhaps I'm missing something?

Interesting article, thank you.
posted by daisyk at 2:15 AM on September 17, 2012


I did this. Kosovo paid off my credit cards; Iraq was the down payment on our house. I know the guy that wrote this. Maybe not the exact guy, but plenty just like him. The basic formula for a lot of the people who go overseas one or more of the three Ds: Debt. Divorce. Depression. I had two out of three.

Its not limited to IT and white-collar jobs; there's a significant number of plumbers, electricians, construction guys, truck drivers, etc who go out to work on one of the bases or FOBs or other contracts for a couple of months a year to supplement their income. There's a big demand in particular for cops and ex-cops, which often turns out to be a disaster since unlike the IT and construction guys, they actually have to interact with "the locals" and try to generate some substantive improvements in how they work, something that they are often ill-prepared for by their bosses at venal companies like Dyncorp. The ex-military security guys who get paid much more than anyone else in these environments are a whole other story.

In the end, there's a kind of economic inevitability to it. The Republicans took all the public money that could have been used for investments in infrastructure and education in the US and used it either for tax breaks or for wars and occupation overseas. So if you lost your job or racked up too much debt or just somehow lost your footing on the path of life, you have to go where the money went. You go for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks.

FWIW: I - and a lot of people I know - went into this work vehemently opposed to the invasions and occupations and have significant doubts about the motives and implementation of US presence and assistance. I think most people who do it come out even more skeptical about the process than they went in.

Also. This is not a new phenomenon. The promise of better salaries (often spurred by the burdens of debt at home) has driven people to look for work overseas for as long as the possibility has existed. The Romans had engineers with their armies; the British East India Company and all its colonial counterparts had their legions of administrators, bureaucrats, soldiers and police officers.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:02 AM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


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