ON BEING AN OVERSEAS ARMS CONTRACTOR
Author’s note: The company that I worked for still has employees working in harm’s way. Therefore I will not mention whom I worked for and where exactly I worked, nor will I discuss the specifics of what we did and how we did it. The bad guys do read Western periodicals. The point of my griping in print is not to educate the Islamo-fascists but rather to inform potential adventurers in search of employment.
At the time of this writing in early August 2009, the Kuwaiti papers are reporting how Kuwaiti Intelligence has arrested Al-Qaida operatives who were planning an attack on Camp Arifjan, the largest US military encampment in Kuwait.
I had retired from being a knuckledragging road cop. In the Navy, I prided myself in never having been a rear echelon grunt. I applied for private security jobs. Only one company responded to my electronic inquiries. Their telephonic interview process was slick and the packets of paperwork they sent me were impressive.
I was told that I would be screened for a SECRET security clearance and I filled out more paperwork for my background investigation. (I left the Navy reserves in 1987, so my TOP SECRET clearance was a tad expired.)
COMPANY “X” had a contract to provide security support to certain US military installations in Kuwait. My job title would be Force Protection Officer. We would enforce and be subject to the UCMJ and United States Code. Living accommodations, transport, all uniforms, equipment and weapons would be provided. (We were told that if we should try to import into Kuwait any privately owned firearms and ammunition, we would risk arrest by Kuwaiti authorities.)
I picked up an e-ticket at the airport and flew coach through Frankfurt, Germany to Kuwait City International Airport. I was escorted to my apartment after I arrived at O Dark-Thirty.
NUCLEAR REACTOR CORE RANGE
That next morning I was taken to the company’s quartermaster. I have always been a gear-oriented kind of guy, and would spend my own money to buy the best equipment possible. The gear that I was issued was the cheapest crap that they could possibly find. I quickly replaced my sloppy boots with a $100 pair of Altama desert boots from the base PX. It was the best $100 I have ever spent. The Mag-Lite may have been state of the art in the mid-1970s, but I replaced it with a Surefire 6P. I bought a Spec-Ops Brand flashlight holster in an unauthorized grey color. My 9mm magazine pouch never showed up, so I purchased Spec-Ops Brand pouches for both 9mm and 5.56. The issued belt keepers and portable radio holder were locally made and totally worthless. The radio was free to slop around, and after searching the desert twice looking for a lost radio, I had a friend in the States send me some Blackhawk stuff. I never did get my body armor. But the upside of that is that I didn’t have to wear it or lug it around when the temperature got into the “nuclear reactor core” range. The company must have felt that eye protection just wasn’t necessary in Kuwait. After experiencing my first Kuwaiti sandstorm, I bought a pair of Flakjak goggles at the PX. (All of this “we issue all equipment” was starting to make a serious dent in my paycheck.) Luckily, I had brought along my old Tactical Tailor 3-Day Assault Pack and my Blackhawk Hellstorm gloves. The PX did a good business selling tactical-style backpacks, but most were cheaply made.
SO WHERE ARE THE BIG BUCKS?
The first three weeks was spent in classroom training. My pay was around $12 an hour and was based upon a 50-hour work week. Per Kuwaiti labor law, anything over 48 hours in a week was considered overtime and paid at a rate of 1.25, not 1.5 as in the US. We were told repeatedly that once we actually started working, we would be taking home some serious money.
When I started working for real – 12.5 hours a day, six days a week, under $2000 USD was being deposited into my US bank account every two weeks. For the last two months that I was in Kuwait, everyone at my camp was reduced to working a 62.5-hour work week, so my bi-weekly payroll deposit was reduced to $1500. This was a far cry from the promises of big bucks made when I applied.
Training was a real shocker. For the most part, it consisted of the instructor intoning, “Officer Jones. Would you please read aloud the first three paragraphs of page 2 in your study guide?” “Officer Smith, would you please read aloud the next three paragraphs of the study guide?” Most of the printed material was in doublespeak and was full of spelling and grammatical errors. This puzzled me until I realized that almost all contracting companies’ top management consisted of retired Army E-7s and E-8s. I have the highest regard for senior NCOs. Most are great at carrying out policy, but most don’t have the education of an officer, or the training for writing policy. They are familiar with being told what to do and how to do it, based upon past standing operating procedures (SOPs) and traditions. There were very few former military officers working as contractors.
This is straight from the manual. The emphasis is mine:
THIS IS HOW A POST BRIEFING SHOULD GO
1) GOOD (MORNING/AFTERNOON/ EVENING) SIR OR MAM
2) MY NANE IS _________
3) I HAVE BEEN A SECURITY OFFICER FOR ______ (YEARS/MONTHS)
4) THIS IS POST_____
In the USE OF FORCE segment of the training, our instructor reminded us that we carry our weapons in what the Army referred to as CONDITION AMBER, or what civilian shooters call CONDITION TWO—magazines inserted in the well, chamber empty and weapon on SAFE. I was dumbfounded when the instructor told us that should we chamber a round, we had better fire it off or else we would be fired. I asked for clarification. “If you do chamber a round, the threat must be so high that the only way to deal with that threat is to shoot the suspect. If you chamber a round and don’t fire it, the threat must not have been severe enough to justify you chambering a round and you will be fired.”
Incredulous, I gave this hypothetical situation: “At the gate, someone tries to force his way in. He exits his vehicle with a weapon. I chamber a round in my M4. Just as I aim it at the suspect, he decides to surrender and he drops his weapon to the ground and raises his arms in the air. You are telling me that under those circumstances, I am still supposed to shoot him?” “Oh, no. He has surrendered. He is now unarmed. If you were to shoot him, you would go to prison.” “But you just said that if we chamber a round and don’t fire it off, we will be terminated.” “Well, in that case, yes, you don’t shoot him.” “But what about the part about being fired for not shooting a chambered round from the weapon?” Finally the light bulb illuminating inside the former E-7’s head burned a few watts brighter. “Ah…that’s what I was taught by my instructor, but he was wrong.”
We were also told that should we be threatened by a person with a knife, he is not considered a threat to us, and therefore it is illegal to shoot him until he gets within 21 feet. The other former cops in the class and I tried to argue that point. It has been demonstrated over and over that a dedicated man with a knife can harm a man armed with a gun at distances of 21 feet and beyond. The instructor didn’t want to hear it. We were reminded that per policy, should we shoot a knife-wielding man who was beyond 21 feet, we would go to federal prison. I took some relief in knowing that there weren’t a lot of suicidal stabbers in Kuwait.
THE MACHINE GUN SHOOT—OR NOT
Most of us were looking forward to going to the range, but discouragement set in once we arrived. Talk about sucking all of the fun out of a machine gun shoot. All shooting was done through a concrete shooting tunnel at a target set back 25 yards. We fired a 40-round qualification course with a Beretta, but we only “familiarized” ourselves with the M16/M4 by firing three 30-round magazines and we “familiarized” ourselves with the M249 and M60 by firing a single 28-round belt through each. Not once were the Four Universal Firearms Safety Rules discussed. The instructor said he was not familiar with them, nor did he want to hear them.
I never fired my brand new issue Beretta. Not once. After carrying my M4 for about four months, I was finally scheduled to go to the range and zero in and qualify with it. I was told that there would be no more weapons range days for the duration of my contract.
If the range session was a disappointment, then weapons’ cleaning was truly a shock. The gun cleaning kits provided were appalling. Patches were almost non-existent. Cleaning rods were rare. The few bore brushes were all bent. The only solvent/oil available was a brownish fluid poured out of an unmarked gallon jug into re-used cleaner, lubricant, and preservative (CLP) bottles. The armorer had no clue whether the substance was solvent or oil. (Weapons cleaning rule number 1: Never allow oil to come in contact with any part of the firearm that is touched by propellant gas. It will lead to a carbon build up. For those parts use GI Rifle Bore Cleaner or Hoppe’s #9.) The only items in abundance were pipe cleaners. I watched as student after student jammed rods down the muzzle ends of their weapons. Many soaked pipe cleaners in the brown stuff and dunked it down the gas tubes. Not to be bothered by the lack of .30 and .22 caliber brushes, most simply rammed a 9mm bore brush down the M60, M249 and M16/M4 barrels. Instructors watched this process in ignorant bliss. (Note to squad leaders and company commanders—you really need to teach your people the proper way to clean a weapon. Ensure that the proper supplies are on hand.) Appalled at what I had witnessed, on my next visit to the PX I purchased my own Otis Universal Cleaning kit and carried it in my ruck.
LONG DAYS AND NIGHTS
After training was completed, I started working at the US military camp. Everyone worked one of two shifts. I started on the day shift and we rotated to night shift every three months. Here are highlights of my daily routine. For night shift, just add twelve hours to the clock.
0245. My alarm goes off. Make coffee, peanut butter on toast, cup of yogurt and bowl of cereal. Shower and shave. Check my email.
0350. Catch the crew bus for the long ride to camp.
0500. Arrive at camp. Check daily work roster to find work assignment, don duty gear and draw weapons.
0530. On the clock for pay. (Note: transport and initial time on camp is uncompensated.) Guard mount (Quarters to you former squids) and then catch the shift bus to my duty assignment.
1100~1130. My one chow break of the day. Once my chow relief arrived, I got a whole 30 minutes to leave my post, go get my chow and return to my post. With that time constraint, all meals are to go. I had the option of bringing my own chow from home, eating at the PX food court or going to the base dining facility (DFAC). You old timers will
know it by the old name of chow hall or enlisted mess. The food court offered most of the franchises, such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, but they cost about 1.5 as much as they did CONUS.
A TASTY RECIPE FOR HEARTBURN
I have been eating in chow halls since Ford was president. I have to say that overall, this was the best I have ever experienced. Army cooks oversaw the menu and the preparation, but the cooking and food service tasks were left to foreign nationals—Filipinos, Indians, and Bangladeshis, who did an awesome job. Lunch cost me $4.15 a pop. You get in line, wash your hands outside, pay your money, grab a tray, get a to go box, stuff it with food, drink and dessert, walk out, stuff your food into a plastic sack, dump your tray, get back into the waiting vehicle, go back to your work assignment, and try to eat your meal in peace. One word of advice – don’t sample the kimchee. Don’t.
1745. Get relieved by the oncoming shift and catch the shift bus back to base camp. Turn in weapons and remove gear.
1800. Pay clock stops. Wait on crew bus for armory to do a final weapons inventory.
1800~1830. Get the OK from the armory to depart.
1910. Arrive back at the apartment. Shower, prep next day’s uniform, and check email from home.
2030. Hit my rack.
I only ate twice a day—a small breakfast, a large lunch and then skip dinner. I preferred to spend the time trying to get some shuteye.
GRASS IS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LAPD HILL
I had about an hour and a half a day of free time. Each day they got 45 minutes to an hour of free work out of us. I read in STARS AND STRIPES newspaper that a federal judge ruled that the Los Angeles Police Department was to be paid overtime for their locker room time and I questioned why that ruling didn’t apply to us also.
HERE WAS A TYPICAL WORKWEEK
Day One –Work front gate for 12 hours, checking IDs of all incoming personnel. American military, coalition
military, DoD, all nationality contractors needed access to the camp and had to present an official ID card that had to be verified in a database.
Day Two – Work an observation tower for 12 hours. If you needed to use the porta-potty nearby, you needed to hold it, call on the radio for a relief, hold it, wait for your relief, hold it, wait some more for your relief to show up, and then make a dash to the porta-potty. Otherwise you were deserting your post.
Day Three – Work the secondary gate for 12 hours. All vehicle occupants dismount and move to a holding area. All bags and belongings are removed from the vehicle, opened and searched. All vehicle storage compartments are opened and inspected. The engine compartments and undercarriages are thoroughly inspected. We are looking for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), weapons and contraband. Only after a comprehensive, clean search are the vehicles and occupants authorized to come onto the camp.
Day Four – Roving patrol for 12 hours, which included making porta-potty relief, chow relief and ice and water runs. Each post had an ice chest and had a few cases of bottled water. The temperature in Kuwait could easily exceed 130 degrees. That required massive water consumption, usually over a case of water a day. The rover could easily deliver 150 bags of ice to the various posts during the shift.
Day Five – Work back gate for 12 hours.
Day Six – Tower duty for 12 hours.
DEFRAUDING THE TAXPAYERS
Contracting companies make a lot of money off their recruits, and the amount depends on a company policy. They pay for the initial recruitment. They pay for the contractors to be flown to Kuwait. They pay the salaries. They pay for the equipment. After 90 days you take a certification test. If you pass the test (and about 94 percent do), the Army then writes the company a large lump check for a year’s worth of service for the individual contractor. The
Army reimburses the company for everything, including the SECRET security clearance.
When I arrived in-country, I assumed that the background check had already been done and that I now had my clearance. Not quite. The company pockets the money ($20,000 plus is the number I heard time and again) earmarked to process clearances until a recruit needed to get a real SECRET clearance to submit to the proper authorities if a specific job opening actually required a SECRET clearance. Some recruiters would seek applicants who still had a valid clearance from their recent military time. If none were available, the recruiters would then actually pay for the investigation.
A company was totally reimbursed by the Army for a year’s worth of contractor expenses: salary, housing, transport, equipment, initial training and in-service training, Should a certified contractor leave early, the company got to pocket the change. In the current economy, there was no shortage of applicants for replacement.
COLD WEATHER SURVIVAL
My shift had just transitioned from 90 days of night duty to our very first day shift. The noon temperature was nearly twice as hot as that at night, hitting the 117 degree F mark. That transition day was an 18-hour-long workday and I was about 15 hours into it. I was assigned to the outside posts where you are on the ground and out in the sun for most of it. One of our training officers drove up to my post. I thought he was going to relieve me for lunch. That wasn’t the case. Because COMPANY “X” had neglected training for so long, he was there to give me my obligatory daily mini-training. Or more precisely, to get my signature on a form that testified that I had received my daily training to show to the Army and say, “See what a swell job we have been doing training our people on really important stuff?”
I have been outside and on my feet for most of the long, blazing hot day with only one meal break and the trainer wants my undivided attention for a few minutes. And what was the subject of that day’s minitraining, you ask? COLD WEATHER SURVIVAL! “Don’t get cold. Cold is bad. If you get cold, try to warm up. Don’t get wet and cold. Wet and cold is bad. If you should get wet and cold, try to dry off and warm up. Wear a hat when you get cold. A hat will help you keep warm. We’re done. Sign here.”
THE MANUAL OF ROCKET SCIENCE
I wanted to butt-stroke him, but I knew that it wasn’t his fault. He was following the training manual.
Here is another training subject straight from the Manual of Rocket Science: OBSERVATION TECHNIQUES. “It is easier to see in daylight than it is at night. Bad weather can affect your ability to see. When searching, you can look left, than right, flickering your eyes as you do so.”
Approximately 50 percent of our security officers were Indians. They were paid about $2.25 an hour for doing pretty much the same job as their American counterparts. The biggest difference was that the Indians were not allowed to carry. All work would stop when the training officers would show up at a duty post and lecture us about such mindless topics as “duty belt equipment.” “Your pistol holster goes here, your handcuff case goes here, your radio case goes there and your magazine pouches (which I was never issued) go here and here. Sign here.” Most of those in attendance at these training lectures were the Indians, and they didn’t wear duty belts. But the company got their signatures on a training roster that they could later show the Army. If there was one positive aspect to my working for the company, it was the respect that I developed for the Indians. Their work ethic was superb, the devotion to duty was unquestionable, their humor much appreciated, and I learned a great deal under their direction. They were awesome. India will be a superpower someday and I am glad that they are on our side.
AQUA GULF WATER CURE
In May 2009, STARS AND STRIPES reported that a US soldier stationed at Camp Victory in Iraq shot and killed five fellow American GIs. At a base stress clinic he overpowered a guard, took the guard’s weapon and opened fire inside the clinic. Fellow GIs overpowered him and he was taken into custody. I focused in on the phrase, “he overpowered a guard and took the guard’s weapon.” In my police career I had training in weapons retention, and as police firearms instructor I taught weapons retention. I wrote up and submitted a proposal on weapons retention. It was denied for two reasons. One, it wasn’t in the manual. Two, I wasn’t a trainer and therefore even if weapons retention could somehow magically be inserted into the manual, I wasn’t qualified to teach it.
The company got away with a lot by paraphrasing training as “Basic First Aid. Basic Fire Fighting. Basic this and basic that.” We were dealing with guns and explosives and moving vehicles and IEDs and helicopters overhead and poisonous snakes and pissed-off radical Islamo-fascists, so I had naively assumed that the first aid training would include sexy things such as tourniquets, chest tubes, airways and pressure dressings. Here is our entire “Basic First Aid Training”: “Drink water. If you should have a medical emergency, notify Base by radio.” That’s it. No CPR training. No lectures on bandages, splints, pressure points. Just a simple “Drink water.” We loved to joke that any medical problem—snake bite, amputation, gun-shot wound, injury from a fall, sexually transmitted disease and
leprosy—could all be cured by simply drinking a nice, cold half-liter bottle of refreshing Aqua Gulf water.
FOR US AN ILL-EQUIPPED DUTCH OVEN – FOR TOP BRASS A DESERT RESORT
We would spend a 12-hour shift in an observation tower, half of which weren’t insulated. In the Kuwaiti sun the towers were basically a Dutch oven. Each tower had a diesel generator and an air conditioning unit, but these units occasionally crapped out and the interior temperatures could easily climb to over 140 degrees. It could take hours to get a repair team on site. If the AC in your tower petered out, you weren’t allowed to abandon the tower. Just drink some more water. We had posts that required you to be outside and on your feet for most of your 12-hour shift, rain or shine. The sled dogs would tell the sergeants that some cover would be nice. The sergeants would tell the brass that some cover would be nice. Yet no cover would ever be ordered.
In an observation tower, you drew a pair of binoculars during the day or a pair of night vision goggles at night. Most of the binos were Steiner Marines. For several months one tower was issued a broken pair of el cheapo brand binos made in China. The catalogue price was about $79. THE ISSUED BINOS WERE BROKEN! They wouldn’t focus. “Why are you issuing broken binos?” “Each tower must have a pair of binos.” “What’s the point of issuing broken
binos?” “Just sign for them and take them.” “But they don’t work. They are useless.” “Just shut up and take them.”
The top brass worked in a high rise office building in the city. Their building had central AC, janitorial services and a swimming pool! A roof over our head, insulation for the towers, binoculars that worked, even brooms that worked just weren’t on their priority list.
GOING AWOL CONTRACTOR STYLE
I went back to the US on vacation just before my contract ended. I decided not to return. The pay wasn’t what was promised and the job was important but not very challenging. I respected my fellow sled dogs but I held the management in pure contempt. The medical insurance that they provided was almost worthless. I paid extra to get my wife on the policy. Whenever she went to a doctor or filled a prescription, she had to pre-pay and then mail a receipt and a claim form to the insurance company in Belgium. The insurance company always rejected the claim, saying that my wife hadn’t filled the forms out correctly. They mailed the rejected forms to me in Kuwait and I had to forward them to her. She had to resubmit them back to Belgium.
There are contractors and there are contractors. The folks behind the machine guns up in the towers are contractors. The gal working in the post office, the guy repairing the generator and the lady that puts out the rat poison are contractors also. American GIs stationed in Kuwait are restricted to the camps. There is no liberty for them. Contractors live on the economy and commute to the camps. My neighbors were Kuwaitis. I liked the Kuwaitis. Most Kuwaitis love America, and I was treated with great kindness by the local population. Kuwait is a conservative Islamic nation and alcohol is not allowed. Not even on the camps. If you are caught with alcohol in Kuwait, you will be arrested. You will be terminated. You will be deported.
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