IRAQ: Security Contractor Detained

Rick Blanchard says he was one of eight former U.S. Marines among 14 security specialists in a 19-man convoy employed by Zapata Engineering of Charlotte, N.C. on May 28 in Northern Iraq where Marines intercepted them and escorted them to Camp Fallujah.

A Shelbyville resident says he'll be home this weekend or next week from Iraq where he was part of a corporate security team he says was taken into custody by U.S. Marines, detained for three days in Fallujah and released without an explanation.

Rick Blanchard says he was one of eight former U.S. Marines among 14 security specialists in a 19-man convoy employed by Zapata Engineering of Charlotte, N.C. on May 28 in Northern Iraq where Marines intercepted them and escorted them to Camp Fallujah.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employs Zapata to manage an ammunition storage depot in Iraq and for the collection and transportation of ammunition from various places to the depot for destruction.

The 16 Americans and three Iraqis are believed to have been the first private security personnel detained in Iraq since the war began two years ago, according to the Associated Press. No charges were filed and the American contractors are believed to have left Iraq, the AP reported, quoting the military. 

A Marine spokesman in Iraq denied allegations of abuse and said "The Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and ... were treated humanely and respectfully," according to the AP.

E-mails from and forwarded by Blanchard to the Times-Gazette indicate the Zapata convoy may have been mistaken for another pair of armed vehicles, but news stories report shots were fired -- either at Marines or as a warning to a vehicle following them.

"We have great admiration and respect for the U.S. Marine Corps," Zapata Engineering President Manuel Zapata said in a prepared statement Thursday. "We are very concerned, therefore, by allegations and reports of American contractors firing upon them. ...

"The fact that all of the company's security personnel in Iraq are Americans leads us to believe that the root cause of the events was a misunderstanding by people who are living and working in an intense and stressful situation," Zapata said.

Blanchard said, "My team was detained ... for 72 hours in a prison under the same roof with Iraqi insurgents. We were released with no explanation why we were arrested and treated badly."

He wants an apology from the Marines.

A Charlotte Observer report, published Thursday and picked up by the AP, says the private security team says spike strips placed in the road flattened the tires of Zapata's vehicles.

In one of the e-mails Blanchard forwarded to the Times-Gazette, he reported photos were taken when he and others in his team were in custody.

A Naval Criminal Investigation Service inquiry is underway, the military said.

Marines said 16 Americans and three Iraqi contractors sprayed small-arm fire at Iraqi civilians and U.S. forces from their cars in Fallujah on May 28, the AP reported.

"Three hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack," Marines spokesman Lt. Col. David Lapan said, reportedly through an e-mail sent from Camp Fallujah.

E-mails attributed to Blanchard describe a case of mistaken identity.

"These allegations are so false against our team," Blanchard said. "There was a team that went through Fallujah about one hour before us, shooting up the town.

"I feel the Marines have mistaken us for that ... team," Blanchard said, adding that an immediate investigation was completed.

However, video of the incidents was not disclosed to the Marines, according to an e-mail attributed to Blanchard.

While Blanchard said his team was arrested, Zapata said no charges were filed but the company president is "disturbed over reported accounts by our personnel of their treatment while in military detention."

Zapata is continuing his corporate investigation into the chain of events and told the AP it is "inconceivable" his employees fired on Marines in Fallujah. "We have a military culture in this company."

A Marine combat team reported receiving small arms fire from gunmen in several trucks and SUVs prior to the Zapata team's detention, the AP reported today, quoting Marine spokesman Lapan.

Mark Schopper, a lawyer in Reno, Nev., said some of the contractors allege they were physically abused and humiliated while in custody, the AP reported. Schopper said he represents two of the Zapata workers, including Matt Raiche, a former Marine in his 20s from Nevada.

Raiche was mentioned to the Times-Gazette as a military contractor by Jana Crowder, who lives in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee where she participates in a support group for contractors working in Iraq.

She challenged indications that the security team wasn't arrested; "If they were not under arrest, why couldn't they leave?"

Crowder has spoken with wives of contractors and repeated statements that the women have received telephone calls they interpret as threats rather than advise that their men should "watch their backs."

Blanchard omitted information about his family in this area "for security reasons," but said his children live here, and "I will also reside in Shelbyville when I get home."

"I will be home real, real, real soon, next 6-9 days," Blanchard told the Times-Gazette in a June 4 e-mail.

Schopper, the Nevada lawyer, said his client, Raiche, told him the Zapata workers were heckled, slammed to the ground, kneed in the backs of their necks and, while blindfolded, sounds of ammunition being readied for firing were made by Marines, according to the AP report.

E-mails from Blanchard provide similar descriptions, albeit less complete.

Zapata workers were heckled about being "rich contractors," Schopper said quoting Raiche to the AP.

"As far as the job is concerned, it is financially rewarding, but the biggest reward is to lend a helping hand to all our soldiers," Blanchard said. "We are at risk just like the military. We have security contractors that get killed."

Compensation for such contractors is reportedly in the range of $100,000 annually.

Zapata Engineering has destroyed 24,682 tons of captured ammunition as of Thursday morning, the company's president said in a prepared release.

"Each round we destroyed is a round that is not available to the insurgents to use against our troops or the Iraqi people," Zapata said.

His company was established in 1991. Among other services, it provides environmental engineering and remediation service that includes the removal and disposal of munitions and explosives.

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