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Good pay blurs risk for hired guns
They're targeted for shootings, bombings -- even beheadings. But private security contractors don't often have the kind of protection afforded their uniformed counterparts. Yet as many as one dozen Utah National Guardsmen have taken up private arms in Iraq and Afghanistan, joining thousands of other Americans in the Middle East -- not as soldiers but as gun-carrying contractors.
The cash is good. Really good. One-hundred-thousand-for-six-months-work good. Sometimes, it's even better than that. And that's nothing to scoff at for soldiers who don't make a quarter as much for a full year's work.
But worth it for the job they're contracted to do?
Standing in the dining room of her Murray home, Carol Thomas Young gazes downward at a framed photograph of her son.
"No way," she says, staring into the glass with tears in her eyes. "It's not worth it at all."
11:05 a.m., Saturday, May 7: Brandon Thomas was in the middle car of a three-SUV convoy as the vehicles left a busy traffic circle in central Baghdad.
As the convoy entered a side street, a suicide bomber -- in his own car packed with explosives -- rolled forward and struck Thomas' vehicle. The blast sent the SUV into flames, leaving the vehicle mangled and charred. Thomas, his co-worker Todd Venette and at least 20 Iraqi citizens were killed in the explosion.
In a memorial service later this month, Thomas will be remembered as a patriotic hero -- a man who decided to get to Iraq on his own after learning there were no immediate plans to deploy his National Guard unit.
The 27-year-old soldier started looking for expatriate security work in December, shortly after he graduated from an Army special warfare course.
"He had made contact there with a lot of Delta Force-type guys," Young says, referring to an elite group of Army counterterrorism specialists. "He talked to buddies who had gone over and done this kind of thing."
By January, the lanky young man was carrying a machine gun in the streets of Baghdad, having signed a one-year contract with CTU Security Services.
The North Carolina-based company has grossed more than $20 million in security-related contracts in the past year, according to company records. Among its duties was providing security for Fox News broadcast crews -- a duty Thomas relished. During Internet chat sessions, Thomas reported being "stoked" about his job. But there were also many risks.
"He said it was like the Wild West," Young says. "You just never know where it is going to come from."
Targeting convoys: It's been several months since U.S. military Humvees have been allowed to roll out of Baghdad's Green Zone -- a heavily guarded area of closed-off streets -- without top-tier protective armoring.
Security contractors don't have to adhere to such strict safety regimens. So when CTU's forces moved through Baghdad's crowded streets, it was in a convoy of silver Chevrolet Suburbans.
The specially equipped SUVs -- a choice vehicle of many security contracting companies -- have light armor plating and bulletproof glass. But those amenities provide little protection against the insurgency's current weapon of choice: powerful homemade bombs.
Just a few weeks before the attack that claimed Thomas' life, the Utahn and his co-workers narrowly avoided a bomb that exploded just yards ahead of their convoy. Thomas also reported being shot at on a number of occasions.
Other security contractors have been caught in riots. Some have been kidnapped. Several have been executed, their deaths recorded in grisly, grainy video and distributed for a worldwide audience.
At least 87 non-Iraqi security workers -- nearly half of them American -- have been killed in Iraq since January 2004, according to http://icasualties.org, an Internet site devoted to tracking war casualties.
Among those losses were four security contractors ambushed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack near Fallujah last spring. Following the attack, the men's bodies were torched and dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were dismembered by men wielding shovels, then hung from a bridge crossing the Euphrates River.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the victims' families accused the men's employer, Blackwater Security Consulting, of not properly arming their workers or armoring their vehicles.
As independent contractors, many security workers in Iraq have to purchase their own weapons and body armor. Because they often arrive in the country before their first paycheck, some pick up their first set of gear on the cheap, hoping to upgrade later on.
In response to the suit, Blackwater has produced copies of contracts signed by the men, indicating each was prepared to assume any risks, knowingly accepting employment under "volatile, hostile and extremely dangerous circumstances."
Why agree to such terms?
Pay dirt: The e-mails started popping into Rodney Allen's inbox three months before he left the U.S. Marine Corps. The messages came from a recruiter working for Dyncorp, one of the largest private security providers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They were offering a one-year contract with the company, providing security for various officials in Iraq," Allen says. "It was starting at $160,000 a year."
As a noncommissioned officer in the Marines, the Utah native had been making about $27,000 annually.
"I saw that amount of cash and I'm thinking 'Wow,' " he says. "It blew my mind. I didn't think anyone without a bachelor's degree was able to make that kind of money."
He ultimately turned down the offer.
"If I wasn't getting married, I would have taken the job," says Allen, now a student at Utah Valley State College.
The offer Dyncorp extended to the decorated former embassy guard was by no means uniquely generous. Company executive Greg Lagana says individual contracts routinely start at about $130,000 per year. Well-qualified contractors -- particularly those with special forces experience -- can fetch that much in six months. And some have reported contracts exceeding $1,500 a day, the equivalent of about $550,000 a year.
A report prepared by the British American Security Information Council concluded there are at least 20,000 security contractors in Iraq.
The report's authors were unable to put a finger on the total value of private security contracts. But they noted that 12 of the largest firms had accumulated more than $951 million in business.
The council suggested the rush to fill big money contracts may lead to the hiring of unqualified people -- contractors who may not be able to protect themselves, their co-workers or their charges.
Those warnings, issued in September, seem to have presaged problems identified two weeks ago by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
Reviewing a security contract with United Kingdom-based Aegis Defense Services, valued at $293 million, the inspector found that Aegis had failed to hire individuals with the appropriate qualifications and training. It also found that the company had failed to vet Iraqi nationals before hiring and hadn't documented weapons qualifications before handing its employees AK-47 assault rifles and Glock handguns.
Dyncorp's Lagana defends Aegis, noting that most of the inspector general's concerns appear to be matters of paperwork. Lagana says the security firms with which he is familiar -- and the people those firms hire -- are thoroughly professional.
"A vital role": Lt. Col. Jefferson Burton, commander of the Utah National Guard's 1457th Combat Engineer Battalion, believes security contractors are performing "a vital role" in reconstructing Iraq.
When Burton's battalion began a yearlong deployment during the war's first months, many of his engineers were engaged in security work that kept them from rebuilding roads, bridges, sewers and schools. As contractors arrived in subsequent months, soldiers who had been working security were able to do what they were trained to do, Burton said.
Shortly after his battalion rotated home, two of Burton's soldiers returned to Iraq for jobs as security contractors. Burton said he doesn't encourage such decisions, but neither will he stand in a soldier's way.
Guard spokesman Hank McIntyre says at least 10 others have taken contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- though the major isn't sure how many of those are doing security work.
As long as the soldiers can return home for mandatory drilling, the Guard takes no position on their choice of careers, McIntyre says.
"I've never heard of an instance where the Guard says 'No, you shouldn't work there,' " he says.