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Blackwater: Inside America's Private Army Print

soldierBy JOANNE KIMBERLIN AND BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot - July 23, 2006

Private military companies are becoming a critical part of 21st century warfare, and Blackwater USA is on the leading edge. The company offers an academy that turns out corporate warriors who work in hot spots around the world. Above, trainee Gregory Collier screams for team members to evacuate the area during an executive protection drill.

MOYOCK, N.C. - Today's after-lunch lesson: How to break a man's arm with your bare hands.

The students pay close attention. On a patch of grass under a powder-blue sky, they pair off to practice the moves - like the steps to some merciless dance:

Hold here. Pivot there. Trap arm. Bend. And snap.

Slavko Ilic circles the grappling forms, darting in to shout encouragement or correct a technique. He's an extra-large martial arts expert. He sports a shaved head, chiseled arms and the look of a man who does not back down.

"Again!" Ilic barks. "Do it again!"

Getting it right in class now could be the difference between life and death later. Graduates are, most likely, headed to the messy battlefields of the war on terrorism - a fitful conflict with no front lines.

These men are not soldiers, at least not anymore. All have military experience, but in order to join a new breed of warriors - private security contractors - they must pass this eight-week, $20,000 course.

To get here, they've sold possessions, quit jobs and left behind families. To stay here, they must measure up. Eight have already washed out; the 11 survivors have little time for sympathy.

Sweat darkens their camo-green jumpsuits. They've moved on to the next session. Two-by-two, they wrestle for possession of a pistol - one trying to snatch the weapon, the other trying to keep it. Muscles strain. Joints pop. Arms wipe impatiently at bloody lips.

Ilic steps in to demonstrate the tactics again. One fluid move later, his opponent is eating turf.

"Don't worry," Ilic says calmly to the helpless form trapped in his hold. "I'll bring flowers to your funeral."

Just a half-hour's drive from downtown Norfolk, Mow-yock, as the locals call it, is an unassuming cluster of mom-and-pop shops, weathered grain tanks and quick marts.

For most drivers, it's just a blip on the blacktop heading to the Outer Banks. There is no clue that this tiny border town is the home of anything big enough to make news around the globe.

But it's here all right, just off the main drag, down sissy-sounding Puddin Ridge Road. Cruise past a neighborhood of modest homes, beyond an arc of table-flat farms. Three miles in is the bear paw logo, on a sign, all by itself - a no-words-needed, top-of-the-food-chain message.

A little farther is the end of the road - for the public, that is - and a gate that separates two vastly different worlds.

On the other side is Blackwater USA, a booming private military company that's helping put a new face on 21st century warfare.

Only the authorized get past the gate. A buzz-cut guard sees to that, a handgun strapped to his thigh. Inside, a winding road leads to the heart of the 7,000-acre compound - a bigger spread than any military base in South Hampton Roads.

Heavy equipment scurries to and fro, moving mountains of dirt. Over here, a 6,000-foot runway is taking shape for an air wing coming up from Florida. Over there, a 1-acre hangar will shelter the company's state-of-the-art blimp project.

Just past a 15-acre lake is the new nerve center: a 65,000-square-foot headquarters with 300 rooms. Opened this spring, it is the largest building in Camden County. Machine-gun barrels serve as handles on the heavy front doors. A receptionist sits behind a desk fashioned from armor plating.

An image of strength is vital in this muscle-bound business, and Blackwater is a top dog in its field. In a decade, the company has grown from a sketch on a scrap of paper to a superstar in the rapidly expanding universe of the private military industry.

It's a controversial arena, deeply divided by an international debate over the growing use of hired guns. Blackwater has been a lightning rod in the middle of it all since March 31, 2004, when the company's name became linked with the grisly image of charred American corpses hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.

None of that has hurt the bottom line. On any given day, Blackwater has as many as 3,000 security contractors working in far-flung hot spots and some 500 paying clients in Moyock - learning to crash cars, shoot targets, board ships, storm schools, rescue hostages, bust down doors.

At Blackwater, one thing is perfectly clear:

There is big money to be made in a world full of bad news.

The battlefield used to belong to the uniforms. Not anymore.

The trend toward privatizing military tasks has extended to the guys with the weapons. It's estimated that 180 security companies now operate in Iraq alone, with nearly 50,000 workers toting guns, according to government counts.

A host of factors set this stage: a shrinking military, a lingering cold sweat from 9/11, a growing distaste for the bloody sacrifice of America's sons and daughters in uniform.

But privatization has created a new set of unnerving realities: massive firepower falling outside the military chain of command. Companies making huge profits from war. Billions of taxpayer dollars fueling those profits.

Since 2000, Blackwater alone has claimed more than half a billion dollars in federal contracts - most of it no-bid. And that's just what shows up in public records. The nature of the industry ensures considerable privacy. Contracts are often classified, clients confidential, compounds off-limits.

Blackwater's image may be even more secretive than most, due in part to the company's reclusive founder, Erik Prince, a wealthy former Navy SEAL who is rarely interviewed or photographed.

So just who is this outfit in Hampton Roads' backyard?

On the surface, it's a company wrapped in the flag, steeped in conservative politics and stocked with can-do.

Inside, it's a business like few others. Blackwater has more than a dozen vice presidents, but they're not run-of-the-mill desk jockeys. An assault rifle leans in the corner of one office. In another, body armor is stacked in a chair. Frogman gear dampens the carpet behind a door.

Much of the new headquarters, however, echoes with emptiness. Huge rooms are crammed with fully equipped cubicles, but the seats are usually vacant. The work stations exist to support one of Blackwater's greatest assets, an ability the company calls "surge."

Surge occurs when trouble erupts and Blackwater responds. Managers flock to the cubicles, working the phones to tap the company's database of more than 14,000 independent contractors. A full-throttle surge can ramp up the ranks at warp speed.

Training, however, is the bread and butter. It goes on every day of the year at an array of gun ranges, prefab classrooms, plywood sets and a 3-mile tactical driving track. Customized courses draw military personnel, law enforcement officers, federal agents, private bodyguards and adventurous civilians. The bap-bap-bap of gunfire is an ever-present soundtrack.

Weapons come from the company armory. A system of ceiling-high rolling racks occupies most of one room, storing row after row of handguns, shotguns, M-4 assault rifles and the occasional AK-47.

Company officials won't say exactly how many guns are stockpiled in the armory - only that the total is more than 1,000.

Legally, Blackwater can have as many as it wants.

Ilic, 39, is one of about 100 instructors on the company's staff. His niche is Blackwater Academy, a course geared toward producing security contractors.

Not all Blackwater contractors go through the academy. Men with the right resume can go straight to work. For others, the academy is a place to learn new skills and polish old ones. It's also a proving ground - a chance to show Blackwater that they've got the right stuff.

A native of Poland, Ilic has a heavy background in special warfare and black belts in four types of martial arts.

His primary goal now is to keep his students from joining the hundreds of civilian contractors who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; Blackwater has lost 25 men.

Thomas Pogue, 25, is trying to master one of Ilic's moves. Pogue is pretending he has been captured. His hands are up. A rifle barrel jabs his back.

"Please don't shoot me!" he begs with convincing panic. "I give up!"

The plea startles his captor, causing a split-second hesitation that is Pogue's best chance.

He spins, one arm sweeping the barrel aside just as the trigger is pulled. A quarter-sized spot of orange paint blossoms on Pogue's shoulder - proof that he needs to move faster.

"Whoa," Pogue says later. "That stings pretty good."

It's supposed to, explains Bill Go, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel who heads Blackwater Academy: "Believe it or not, that sting helps them get over the fear of getting shot."

No one shrinks from the pain. Graduates sign a two-year contract with the company, but reputations forged in Moyock will affect the kind of jobs they're offered. Courage and cool heads get the big dollar "high speed" work - like keeping a target for assassination alive in Iraq.

Pogue is a former SEAL. He's from Chesapeake, a graduate of Old Dominion University and the only student in the class from Hampton Roads. His look is poster-boy All-American, what military types call "squared away" - trim frame, strong jaw, confident eyes.

"I got out of the military to do this," Pogue says. "Yes, the money is better, but it's more than that. With a company like this, I can serve my country and still control my destiny."

Trainees say they can turn down assignments they don't want and can surround themselves with gung-ho guys.

"Everybody working for the company wants to be here," says Joey Billiott, a student from Louisiana. "In the military, you work with a lot of people who are only there because they're stuck."

Another common thread:

"I tried several jobs after I got out of the Marines," says Phillip West, 28, from Indiana. "I even tried going back to college, but nothing worked out. Everything bored me. I finally realized, I'm just better at this kind of work than anything else. I feel at home here."

Adds Billiott: "My dad, my brothers, they all think I'm insane. I don't know what makes me so different than them. I just am."

So far, no women have attended the academy.

"Women can come if they can handle the physical demands," Go says. "That's the way it's got to be, because the real world isn't politically correct. The guy shooting at you doesn't go easy because you're a woman."

Downtime is scarce during the two-month academy. Classes are held six or seven days a week.

Suicide bombers, surveillance detection and IEDs are on the agenda. The men need to be experts with a map and compass, know the fastest way to wrestle a car out of a ditch, understand which part of a vehicle blocks bullets best.

The day starts at 6:30 a.m. with a 3- to 7-mile run. Trainees set the distance and pace. There is no reveille and no red-faced drill sergeant. Even Ilic peppers his orders with "Hey dude, you know I love ya."

Says Go: "This is not boot camp. If we have to yell at them, they don't belong here."

When push-ups are demanded for mistakes, restitution is delivered quietly on the sidelines, with no oversight.

"They know they owe it," Go says. "They're trusted to do the right thing."

To graduate, students must have a near-perfect score on the gun range - twice. They have to perform well in numerous high-stress scenarios and pass three benchmark physical tests that get ever tougher. By the end, among other requirements, they get two minutes to crank out 75 push-ups and another two for the same number of sit-ups.

They also grade each other - three appraisals over two months spent eating, sleeping and learning together.

"A guy can do really well on the other things," Go says, "but it's no good if everybody hates him. We're not looking for loners."

Those who fail to finish get a discount on the $20,000 tuition - a tab most trainees cover by signing promissory notes to Blackwater. For graduates, payback is deducted from future earnings. For the first two years, they are forbidden to work for Blackwater competitors.

First posts with the company are usually "static," as they say in the industry - relatively safe jobs on the lower end of the pay scale, like guard duty at a gate somewhere overseas. Those who do well will be in line for the more dangerous, more lucrative assignments.

The trainees accept that they have chosen a profession that offers no health insurance, no paid vacations and plenty of chances to die. Billiott figures it's too late to look back now anyway.

"I sold my truck and put everything in storage," he says. "If I don't make it here, I'm screwed."

Private soldiering is an ancient occupation, but the modern version is so new that the rules - and the labels - are still being sorted out.

Outsiders often refer to contractors as "mercenaries," a name that raises hackles among insiders, who say they don't fit such a cold-blooded definition.

"We prefer 'security professionals,'" said Chris Taylor, Blackwater's vice president for strategic initiatives.

Indeed, for the most part, contractors play defense - providing security for diplomats, escorting shipments, guarding gates. But the lines can shift fast in a war zone, thrusting contractors into a pivotal role, where they can influence the outcome of combat, or even instigate it. Rules and accountability become cloudy.

Contractors and soldiers also can get in each other's way. There have been episodes of friendly fire and missions that don't mesh.

Another point of tension: The military talent drain. Hefty paychecks available at companies like Blackwater are luring some of the best and brightest away from the service while creating friction with those still in uniform.

Issues like these have prompted a number of politicians to push for greater regulation of the private military industry. They want established standards and better oversight.

The spotlight fell on Blackwater in March, when Vice Chairman Cofer Black announced at a conference in Jordan that his company was ready to provide peacekeeping brigades to foreign governments and international bodies. News accounts of his speech raised the specter of a private army for rent to the highest bidder. The company insists Black never said any such thing.

It was hardly Blackwater's first time on the front page. Its contractors have shown up repeatedly in war zone photographs - a muscular wall of men in mirrored sunglasses, bristling with firepower, guarding VIPs. Those images helped make Blackwater an icon for its industry.

Then there was Fallujah, which put the company's name on everyone's TV screen - and changed the course of the war. After four Blackwater contractors were killed there, Marines were ordered to pound the city - a shift in strategy that fanned the flames of insurgency across Iraq.

Last fall, Blackwater boots turned up on American soil, some of the first on the ground after Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast. Heads swiveled at the sight of heavily armed civilian soldiers dressed in black, but the company's quick response - and foot-dragging by government officials - led to millions of dollars worth of work in the area.

With each move, and each headline, Blackwater intensifies the debate about the role of private soldiers in today's world:

Is it truly cheaper to farm out so much of the war? Is it right to give civilian soldiers a license to use armed force? Who do they answer to if they fall short, or go too far? Is there a risk of private armies turning rogue?

Just 10 years ago, those questions didn't exist.

Neither did Blackwater. 

 
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