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Patriotism or Profit: Private Military Contractors in Nevada Print
Jonathan Humbert, Legislative Reporter - Nov 14, 2007

What if a private company hired foreign nationals to guard U.S. military bases? What if they weren't accountable to military laws and weren't included in the death toll? And what if those shadow soldiers were paid ten times the amount of our men and women overseas? And what if this all happened on your dime?

Eyewitness News gives you an inside look at a private military company based in Nevada that helps train soldiers who work for profit, not patriotism.

Nestled away on a lonely stretch of road far away from prying eyes there's a place few have heard about. In the tiny town of Hawthorne, Nevada, there is a secret installation with a single mission: training soldiers of fortune for war.

"Hawthorne's known as America's patriotic hometown," said Mike Bermudez, with the High Desert Special Operations Center, or HDSOC. "Red, white and blue is all over the town. People understand what we do here. We preach a certain type of culture that lends itself to not being high-profile," Bermudez stated.

Occasionally open to law enforcement, HDSOC is a sprawling 400-acre site that is home to artillery and gun ranges and complex scenarios. Bermudez is the head of HDSOC. His parent company, SOC SMG, is what's called a private military company. They find soldiers who work for the highest bidder to protect our American forces.

HDSOC is a unique place far different than a normal military facility. Tucked up next to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the echo of gunfire rarely escapes these hills. The smell of sweat and gunpowder swirls together in a unique, if unsettling, taste in your mouth.

It's as close to Iraq or Afghanistan as you can get without actually being there -- the terrain, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the heat. It's all part of the training and preparation for private military companies to go overseas and secure our security.

Professor Eric Herzik, with the University of Nevada Reno, said, "You're contracting out a service you don't normally find in your normal help wanted ad."

Billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled to these private military contractors and Herzik feels those billions go toward companies and activities few Americans know about.

"They are now hiring, in a sense these private armies," Professor Herzik added.

And those shadow armies are typically made up of former military men, vets who still need that sense of honor but also the rich payday that comes along with it.

But it's not just American veterans who are signing up. "Ugandans, you have Romanians, Chileans, Sri Lankans," said Mike Bermudez.

Over the last few years, SOC-SMG, or Special Operations Consulting-Security Management, has recruited 1,500 Ugandans. Those foreign nationals are now guarding our military bases. Our men and woman are being watched over by foreign soldiers who answer to a paycheck, not a flag. And we're paying for all of it.

Bermudez has no problem with that. "They look at that as an opportunity to benefit their lives, so you see less of the patriotic motivation, of course."

The Geneva Conventions specifically outlaw the use of mercenaries. But the United States didn't sign onto that portion of the rules. Instead, government estimates say that there is one contractor for every two soldiers in Iraq. And none of the contractors have to follow the military code of conduct. They have a lot of firepower, but very little accountability.

UNR Professor Eric Herzik said, "You're now delegating ever more services, including now security of our security forces. Then you start to scratch your head and say, have we gone too far with it?"

SOC-SMG has a spotty history with their hires, though. Earlier this year, nine Ugandans were fired and deported after a massive drug bust.

To Bermudez, it's an isolated incident and a mistake. "And in this sort of business, reputation is everything," he stated.

But Herzik feels the reputation of private military companies is one of sweetheart deals and under the table agreements. "The bad news is, you're often writing no-bid contracts with fixed prices with very little oversight."

But back under the blazing heat of the Hawthorne sun, this training ground has a lot to keep hidden, and a lot to gain by keeping that way. "And you certainly won't last in this industry if you can't stand by your word," Bermudez said.

The pay for these contractors is often another closely guarded secret. Depending on the company -- and SOC-SMG did not provide figures for Eyewitness News -- contractors can make up to $365,000 a year. Typical soldiers make $36,000 a year.
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