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A year of living anxiously Still no word about young Amherst man abducted in Iraq

Iraq is a dangerous place for private security contractors. Jonathon Cote knew that.

When he awoke before dawn on Nov. 16 last year, he was ready for another perilous journey into the desert. The young Amherst man and six co-workers were assigned to escort a convoy of 40 Italian military trucks from Kuwait to the Tallil Air Base in Iraq, about four hours away.

"Jon knew the dangers, but he was prepared. He had made that trip many times," said Michael Skora, a close friend and co-worker. "I wasn't going on that trip, but I got up to wish the guys well. We were joking around, making plans to go and eat that night at Chili's restaurant in Kuwait City."

Cote didn't make it to Chili's. He and four other guards were abducted at a fake Iraqi police checkpoint. No one who knows Cote -- including his many loved ones in the Buffalo area -- has spoken with him since.

A videotape of the five hostages surfaced in late December. It showed Cote, then 23, asking the American people to pressure their government to leave Iraq and "help me and my friends get out of here."

Since then, there has been no ransom demand or communication of any kind with the kidnappers. No proof that Jon Cote or his fellow hostages are alive.

As the one-year anniversary of the abductions draws near, his Amherst family -- including his father, Francis L. Cote, and older brother, Christopher -- hope and pray for Jon's safe release. But they cannot be certain that he is alive.

Their deep religious faith helps the Cotes through life, one painful day at a time.

"We always speak in terms of the things that we're going to do when Jon gets home," said his father, a 49-year-old computer systems consultant. "The first thing I do every morning, and the last thing I do every night, is say a prayer for Jon. If I spent the past year thinking he was dead, that would really be bad."

"There's no proof that he is dead," said Christopher Cote. "So I choose to believe my brother is alive."

"We're praying for a miracle," added Jon's mother, Lori Silveri, an Amherst native who is divorced from Francis Cote and now lives in Florida. "I know Jon is strong, he is brave, and he has military training. He knows how to take care of himself."

>'He loves his freedom'

Jon Cote has always been an adventurer, his family said. Athletic and energetic, he reveled in fast-paced activities such as snowboarding, sky diving and riding fast motorcycles.

"He loves his freedom. He can't sit still," his brother said.

Because his dad spent 20 years in the Marines, Jon grew up in several different cities. He was born in Long Beach, Calif., but the family also spent long periods of time in North Carolina, Japan and Virginia before settling in Amherst in 2000.

Jon graduated from Williamsville North High School in 2001. He was preparing to attend Buffalo State College when an Army recruiter approached him with an offer that Jon found impossible to turn down. It was a chance to try out for the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division and get paid to jump out of airplanes.

"Yes!" Jon said, and he enlisted at age 18. The Army paid him a $16,000 enlistment bonus, his father said.

When Jon signed up, America was in a time of relative peace. But a few months later, the nation was rocked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Army sent Jon on tours of duty in Afghanistan at age 20 and Iraq at age 21.

He spent most of his time guarding military bases and supply convoys.

According to his family, Jon was proud of his service but relieved to get out when he left in 2004. He decided to enroll at the University of Florida in Gainesville and study accounting. It seemed an unusual career choice for an adventurer, but Jon said he wanted to make a good living and enjoy the good life.

College in Florida turned out to be a disappointment. After spending his military bonus on a new truck, Jon had trouble paying for his education. He wasn't thrilled with accounting, either.

Jon was talking regularly with Skora, a Chicago native, about Skora's new job as a private security contractor in the Middle East. Skora had been Jon's squad leader in the Army. Now he was making good money -- $7,000 a month -- escorting convoys and protecting individuals for a Kuwait-based company called Crescent Security. Skora told Jon he heard about other companies that paid up to $15,000 monthly.

In early 2006, Jon decided he would go to the Middle East and work with Skora until he saved up enough cash to come back to America and take another shot at college.

His father and brother both tried to talk him out of it. Jon was determined to go.

"It wasn't only about money," Francis Cote said. "Jon missed the camaraderie of the military, and he was all for the idea of delivering freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan. He wanted to be part of that."

His father told Jon he was worried about him.

"Do you realize you could come home dead, or without a limb?" Francis Cote asked his son.

"Don't worry," Jon said.

At the time, Francis never thought about the fact that Jon could be kidnapped.

>Ambushes in Baghdad

Jon encountered dangerous and disturbing situations from almost the first day his boots hit the ground in Kuwait. He and Skora felt lucky to be alive after their first mission together.

They were ambushed in Baghdad, where they had been sent to pick up an Iraqi man from a hospital. Skora was driving the lead car in the security detail, with Jon riding shotgun.

"We were leaving Baghdad, and we were set up. Somebody knew we were coming and blocked off the road in front of us," said Skora, 36. "We started to go down a detour, and suddenly, we were taking fire from the rooftops all around us. About 20 people were firing on us.

"It only lasted about 30 seconds. I got us out of there, but it was very harrowing. Jon kept screaming, 'Mike, get me out of here!' I told him to look for the targets and fire back. Jon settled down and did that.

"Afterward, Jon wouldn't believe what we went through. It was as bad or worse than anything we saw in the Army."

In five months working for Crescent Security, Jon went on dozens of such missions per month, working almost every day. He and Skora survived many situations. They witnessed and narrowly avoided dozens of explosions, including land mines and improvised explosive devices.

"One day, I was driving a truck, and Jon was driving a vehicle behind me," Skora said. "An IED blew up the back end of my truck, and a big piece of cement blew back and shattered Jon's windshield. On one mission, we encountered five IEDs."

Jon got through it all without a scratch, but by October 2006, he'd had enough. He told Skora he missed his family, and he began making plans to move back to the United States.

The last straw came on an extremely hot day, when Jon was sent to pick up the body of a Crescent employee who had been killed by a bomb. The body was in a metal casket, filled with ice. The casket was strapped to the roof of the truck Jon was driving. Blood and melted ice kept dripping down onto the truck's windshield, Jon told Skora.

There were also some tense moments with Iraqi police and some unscrupulous men who worked for Crescent, Skora said.

"I got to get out of here," Jon said in early November 2006. He hoped to be home with his family by Thanksgiving.

>An understaffed convoy

Skora said he has learned some troubling things about the events leading up to Jon Cote's abduction.

"The convoy that day was way understaffed," he said. "Seven guys to escort 40 trucks, that's not enough."

The main reason for the understaffing was that about 15 Iraqi men who worked for Crescent did not show up to work that day. They were supposed to meet the convoy at the Iraq-Kuwait border. Skora suspects that the no-shows were either tipped off about the abductions or were somehow in on the crime.

Authorities said the convoy stopped at what looked like an Iraqi police checkpoint about 20 miles into Iraq, near the city of Nazaria. But the checkpoint was a fake, with about 40 gunmen posing as cops. They stole more than 20 trucks and abducted Jon and four co-workers -- his close friend Joshua Munns, 24, of Redding, Calif.; John Young, 44, of Lee's Summit, Mo.; Paul J. Reuben, 39, of Buffalo, Minn.; and Bert Nussbaumer, 25, of Austria.

Later that day, a representative from the U.S. State Department called the Cote family in Amherst to notify them that Jon had been abducted.

The news hit Francis and Christopher Cote like a thunderbolt.

Francis was just returning from a business trip. Christopher, a motorcycle salesman who loves playing hockey, had just suited up for an adult league game at the Pepsi Center arena when he got the word.

Christopher said he had to make "the hardest phone call of my life," contacting his mother in Florida to tell her what had happened. "I said, 'Mom, if you're near a seat, sit down.' She started crying hysterically," he recalled. "I couldn't keep it together, telling her that."

Nearly a year has passed since that night. The Cotes have learned precious little about what happened to Jon, even though a State Department official does a weekly telephone briefing for all the families of the missing men.

A State Department spokesman contacted by The Buffalo News last week had no new information to release on the case.

According to Francis Cote, there are several government efforts under way to find the abducted men. He also maintains a Web site: freecote.com.

In Skora's view, the U.S. government seems to put much more effort into finding missing soldiers than it does into finding missing private security contractors.

"People tend to think we're only in it for the money, but private contractors are out there supporting the military effort," Skora said. "We're doing dangerous jobs, escorting food and supplies that are needed by the military, because the military doesn't have the manpower to do it. I don't think the private contractors get enough credit for that."

According to estimates from researchers at the Brookings Institution in Washington, 180,000 private contractors have worked with the military in the Iraq War. The institute estimates that 48,000 of those contractors are armed security guards.

At least 1,100 private contractors -- security employees and other workers -- have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since the war began in 2003, and 13,000 have been wounded. At least 305 have been kidnapped, according to Brookings.

Francis Cote said he does not know how his family would have survived the last year without the help of friends, family members and the congregation of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Clarence. The church at 8900 Sheridan Drive has had two prayer services for Jon, and a third will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Pastor Randy Rozelle has been amazed by the positive attitude the Cotes have kept in the face of their worries.

"Some people would just beat themselves up, wondering about the 'why' of the situation," the pastor said. "The Cotes have always relied on the fact that God is in control and that He is going to get them through this."

Francis Cote knows that his son is in terrible danger in a country where unspeakable things have been done to some hostages. He chooses to believe that, someday, Jon will be safely returned to his family.

"We've talked many times about the party when he gets home. We're going to have it in a big hall, to thank all the people who have prayed for Jon and helped us," he said. "I'll tell you what -- it's going to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of Buffalo."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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