IRAQ: Contractor Says Dangerous Work Full of Risks and Rewards

Private contractors in Iraq say pay can top $100,000 for a year's work. But plenty of danger is often part of the bargain. Frank Atkins, who returned home in October, said danger was part of his job as a police adviser. Sometimes, the former Marine enjoy
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The Indianapolis Star

Gunfire, rocket attacks and roadside bombs were part of everyday life for Frank Atkins during his yearlong stint as a police adviser in Iraq.

The retired Speedway police captain wasn't working as a member of the military. A private company had recruited Atkins, 49, to work for the U.S. State Department in Al-Anbar, a large, volatile province west of Baghdad.

"Every day you went out, you were in danger," he recalled from his home on the Far Westside.

Hoosiers who have worked as private contractors in Iraq say pay can top $100,000 for a year's work. But plenty of danger is often part of the bargain.

That point was underscored this week by the kidnapping of LaPorte businessman Jeffrey Ake. Ake was taken hostage Monday by armed insurgents outside a water treatment plant north of Baghdad, where he was working on a private contract.

Ake has not been seen since videotape aired Wednesday on the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera showed him at a desk surrounded by armed militants.

"I think it worked for me," said Atkins, when asked to assess his experience in Iraq. "I don't think that job's for everybody."

More than 300 civilians have died while working for U.S. contractors that perform security, reconstruction and other services in Iraq, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Atkins, who returned home in October, said danger was part of the job. Sometimes, the former Marine enjoyed the thrill of fighting off insurgent attacks alongside U.S. military personnel on his convoys.

Once, however, he became lost in Baghdad on a trip from the airport to downtown. "You talk about being scared," he said.

Atkins, who has a wife, Debra, and three grown children, said he took precautions and frequently reviewed local intelligence reports. He worries that some civilian workers who don't work as closely with the military could be at greater risk.

"You can be killed. You've got to be disciplined," he said.

Ake, a 47-year-old father of four, was in Iraq because the company he owns had won a subcontract to install equipment to filter and bottle products such as water and cooking oil.

A single incident in March 2004 brought the risks private contractors face in Iraq into sharp focus. Four employees of North Carolina-based Blackwater Security Consulting were killed in an ambush, and a mob dragged their burned corpses through the streets of Fallujah.

Since then, three civilian contract employees have been abducted -- two engineers and a businessman -- and beheaded. Insurgents have released other captives, including an Italian journalist last month.

Many journalists have bodyguards and limit travel outside secure areas. Most contractors are required to provide security for their own employees.

"Iraq's unsettled security environment continues to present grave risks for contractors and employees," said a report issued to Congress in January by the Office of Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Nobody knows how many foreign civilians work on U.S. contracts in Iraq. Estimates for security-related workers range from 20,000 to 60,000, while tens of thousands more perform reconstruction work, said Deborah Avant.

She is a political science professor and director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University in Washington.

The pay offered to many civilian employees is high. For workers with a military or police background, paychecks can eclipse $100,000 a year.

"A lot of (contract employees) have experience in the military," said Avant, who will publish a book, "The Market for Force," about the increasing use of private contractors for military functions.

"Some of them want to do good," she said, "and some of them want adventure. The financial motivation definitely is there."

Dan Guttman, who teaches courses on government contracting at George Washington and Johns Hopkins universities, said the use of private companies in war zones isn't new.

But in places like Iraq, he said in an e-mail, the scope has expanded since "we need so many people on the ground and have limited soldier resources."

Tom Schuman, vice president of communications for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the organization does not track how many Hoosier companies have done business in Iraq.

This week's fears about what could happen to Ake have reminded families of other contractors from Indiana how dangerous Iraq can be.

Vivian Rosswurm's 29-year-old son, Geoffrey Schenher, is in Iraq with a security company for a three-month contract, his second. She said she worries whenever she hears of an incident involving a civilian.

"He's very good about e-mailing us and letting us know he's OK," said Rosswurm, 52, a newspaper reporter who lives in Churubusco, near Fort Wayne.

Atkins, the retired Speedway police captain, said he has considered returning to Iraq. Despite many difficulties, he said, he felt as if he helped play a historic role and saw progress.

"We might never invade another country in my lifetime," he said. "I wanted to be a part of it."

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