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Blackwater contractors linked by common threads Print

By JOANNE KIMBERLIN, The Virginian-Pilot - February 1, 2007

The names of the dead have trickled out. They always do, despite the fact that Blackwater stays silent about such things. Instead, word leaks from towns big and small, as families across the country go public with their loss, and step forward to shoulder the caskets.

It's been just more than a week since five Blackwater USA security contractors were killed while protecting a diplomatic convoy attacked in Baghdad. The men died in two separate helicopters. One, carrying a crew of four, crashed under heavy gunfire. The men inside were then shot, execution-style, in the back of the head. It's still unclear if they were alive at the time.

From a web of hometown news reports, a portrait has emerged of the men who fill the ranks of the private military industry. In typical contractor fashion, Blackwater's fallen hailed from all over - California, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Tennessee.

Their link to Hampton Roads: Blackwater's 7,000-acre training compound in Moyock, N.C., just a half-hour south of downtown Norfolk. At one time or another, almost all the company's contractors pass through its gates.

Military backgrounds are another common thread. Among those killed Jan. 23, one had just four years in uniform, but three had two decades. They ranged in age from 25 to 52. Their obituaries tell of special forces, faraway wars, commendations, even a Purple Heart.

Most had worked for Blackwater just a year or two, toting guns and supplying muscle for the company's multi million dollar State Department contract. Roughly 25,000 or so civilian security contractors are in Iraq filling jobs that traditionally belonged to the military. Nearly 800 have been killed since the conflict began in 2003.

Contractors can earn upwards of $600 a day - a fact that often rankles the soldiers they serve beside, and leads to the less-than-flattering "mercenary" label for those who go private. But according to the men's survivors, money was far from the only lure.

"He always loved danger," Jean Parsons, grandmother of Montana's Casey Casavant, told the Great Falls Tribune.

Colleen Head, wife of Colorado's Steve Gernet, described another trait common among contractors when she was quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette: the need for action.

"To live with him unhappy," Head said, "sitting behind a desk or greeting at Wal-Mart wouldn't have been a life."

The men left behind wives, children, parents and siblings. The oldest of the casualties, Arthur Laguna, was a grandfather. His brother, Dan Laguna, also works for Blackwater, as a manager for the company aviation program in Baghdad.

Dan Laguna was the one who recruited Arthur, a veteran helicopter pilot, to come fly in Iraq. On the day Arthur died, the brothers were in the air together, at the controls in side-by-side choppers over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood.

In an e-mail to his hometown news station, KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, Dan Laguna described the firefight. Given the private nature of Blackwater, the e-mail provides a rare window into the company's work in Iraq.

According to Laguna, a call for help came from Blackwater security teams. A report from the American embassy says the contractors were protecting an embassy detail en route to a meeting when it came under attack. Helicopters scrambled from Blackwater's compound in the Green Zone. Colorado's Gernet, a door gunner, took a fatal bullet early on.

"We started to receive heavy volumes of automatic fire from all around," Dan Laguna wrote. "My brother was my wing man at that point and as we took evasive maneuvers, I heard him say they were taking rounds. By the time I got turned around to see him, he was gone."

By then, Dan Laguna's own chopper was crippled. He and his crew limped back to the Green Zone, where mechanics hustled to replace the craft's damaged rotor blades.

"It only took them about 10 to 15 minutes to get me airborne again," he wrote. "I was back up looking for my brother and was able to get the military to help with the search."

The chopper had gone down in a small alley. The Army and a Blackwater ground team reached the wreck first. By the time Dan Laguna's skids hit the ground, two crew members already were in body bags.

"When I unzipped the second body bag... I found my brother."

Blackwater has said in the past that while plenty of its own men have been killed, it has never lost anyone it was hired to guard.

Last week did not change that. The deaths brought Blackwater's toll to 30 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one in the convoy was killed. 

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