BAGHDAD -- Cruising toward Baghdad in the belly of a Spanish turboprop plane with a dozen other private security contractors from Blackwater USA, Rich, a 43-year-old former Navy commando, squinted out the window at the Euphrates River.
The Casa 212 dove 12,000 feet toward Baghdad airport in a drunken, corkscrew landing. A short while later, Rich was riding shotgun in the back of one of Blackwater's South African-made armored Mamba vehicles along the main highway to the capital, one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.
"I like being some place where stupidity can be fatal, because here you work with people who think about their actions," said Rich, who asked for security reasons that only his first name be used. He and his colleagues voice disdain for what they consider the soft, even pampered lives of most Americans in a society he sums up as one that "puts warnings on coffee cups."
Rich is typical of the men drawn to Blackwater USA and scores of other private security firms now doing a booming business in Iraq. They're driven by money and a lust for life on the edge, but also by a self-styled altruism. Sporting blue jeans, wraparound sunglasses and big tattoos, they look the part of gun-slinging cowboys -- but most are experienced enough to know that a hot-dog attitude is the fastest way to get yourself and others killed.
With more hired guns in Iraq than in any other U.S. conflict since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Rich and other armed contractors also admit their role is cloudy and controversial. They do shoot to kill, but they aren't legally considered combatants. U.S. military officials have expressed concern about violence in which the private contractors open fire. The contractors' mission is to protect the lives of individuals and cargo but not necessarily to support the broader interests of the U.S. counterinsurgency.
For more than a year now, Rich has traveled across Iraq, guarding the former U.S. occupation authority chief, L. Paul Bremer, and other high-ranking diplomats. He plans to make a career at Blackwater despite the fact that 18 of his close co-workers have now perished on the job, including two whose bodies were hung in Fallujah last March from what is now called Blackwater Bridge and six who were killed when a helicopter they were riding in was shot down outside Baghdad on Thursday.
Indeed, with an estimated 240 deaths among some 20,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq, Rich's work is as risky or riskier than that of the U.S. military, as firms such as Blackwater take on an unprecedented role in the Iraq war. Blackwater has an average of 1,300 employees on a given day, spread out over seven countries, the firm says. That number includes hundreds in Iraq.
"We have to be willing to go abroad to fight, to go after these guys here so my family at home can stay safe," Rich said. He left the Navy SEALs in the mid-1990s to save his marriage, he said. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said he felt compelled to leave the Virginia cell phone company he worked for and put his military skills to use.
As the Blackwater convoy sped down the airport highway, John "Tool" Freeman, a red-headed ex-Marine, was at the wheel of the lead Mamba, a high-riding, $70,000 armored vehicle designed to withstand antitank mines.
Used by the South African military in Angola, the vehicle is Blackwater's primary means of zipping State Department employees and other nations' diplomats to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. For additional protection, the convoys are shadowed by helicopters with armed guards perched at the open doors scanning for potential attackers.
Freeman, of Portsmouth, Va., said he joined Blackwater after seeing some Marines on television during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "I'd been missing it for a while," he recalled. "I said 'Man, I really need to get back into this.' " But with average pay of $500 to $600 a day, he said, the money was also a big draw for him and his buddies. He said he planned to work for Blackwater for three years to save up cash for retirement -- and a sailboat.
"Most of us have a plan -- it's like, make hay while the sun shines," he said.
Freeman blasted the Mamba's air-horn to force several Iraqi vehicles off the highway. "We beep the horn and flash the lights or push them off the shoulder to keep a buffer between us. Our main threat is the car bomb," he said, adding, "We've had cars cross three lanes of traffic to come after us."
In charge of the daily airport runs, Freeman studies military and private intelligence reports and maps the locations of attacks to look for patterns. He also videotapes the route and watches the tape later to look for possible threats he missed. Such precautions are necessary, private contractors say, as they become more frequent targets of insurgent attacks.
"We're seeing personal security teams are getting hit more," said Richard Hicks, Blackwater's operations manager in Baghdad. "There's been a definite increase in attacks, to hit us where it hurts the most."
At the same time, Hicks said, contractors are under pressure to curb their aggressive methods, although they lack the firepower and backup enjoyed by the U.S. military. Early in the Iraq conflict and up until last year, "there were no rules" limiting contractors' use of force in Iraq, Hicks said. More recently, the State Department imposed restrictions discouraging the contractors from firing warning shots. There are still daily reports of contractors running Iraqis off the road or injuring or killing innocent people, he said.
"Now it's all about accountability," he said at Blackwater's Baghdad team house in the Green Zone, not far from the crossed-sabers archway, a symbol of the era of ousted president Saddam Hussein.
On Their Own
At the team house, the large, comfortable, but simple home of a former Baath Party member, Blackwater employees relax in the evening, eating home-cooked meals of stuffed tomatoes, chicken or hamburgers prepared by an Iraqi staff. Unlike the U.S. military, Blackwater has a far smaller logistical support system and purchases food and other supplies directly from Iraqi sources.
Employees of Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., and other private security firms said they were more flexible, efficient and, in many cases, more experienced than U.S. military forces in Iraq. With many of their members former Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets, their teams are small, tight-knit and responsive both by choice and necessity -- if they get in a tough spot, they can't depend on U.S. troops to come to their aid, they say.
Many recalled an incident in April 2004 when eight Blackwater employees fought off a major insurgent assault on the U.S. government compound in Najaf by the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. Blackwater pilots flew in ammunition and evacuated the wounded without any U.S. military support, they said.
Rich and others said they were frequently fired upon by U.S. soldiers and Marines at checkpoints. "I've been shot at numerous times by our troops, and that's in a black Suburban with American flags," Rich said. Still, they say cooperation with the U.S. military on the ground is largely positive and voiced sympathy for the far younger, low-paid U.S. servicemen, who they say regularly approach them asking about jobs at Blackwater.
Vetting for Blackwater hires is rigorous, said Hicks, a former police chief in Pennsylvania. While the money was a key reason he joined, he said, "Once you get here the money isn't really an issue, because you could be dead the next day."
At the Bristol Hotel in Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater employees transit to and from Iraq, J.D. Stratton, a burly company manager, said 10 percent of Blackwater hires may be unqualified "chuckleheads" who just happen to make it through the screening.
"But they'll eventually be caught," said Stratton, whose nickname is "Terminator" because it is his job to dismiss those who don't work out. "If I show up at your doorstep, you are out of there," he said.
Alcohol abuse and a defiant attitude tend to be the main reasons people are fired, he said, relaxing with other employees at Harry's Jazz Bar. "You have to be disciplined to do this job. If any one of them is a cowboy he will . . . get everyone killed."
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign