Scott Dennis, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran, never considered outright retirement after getting out of the military in 2009. Instead he went to work for private military and security firms and soon found himself back in Afghanistan.
"It was an easy decision," he told NBC News, saying he couldn't afford to not work and wasn't ready for a life of leisure. "The only drawback was the extended time away from home."
But as criticism continues to swirl around the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater, civilian contractors serving in combat zones, like Dennis, find themselves caught between the demand for their services and negative perceptions in the public and even the military. Sometimes creative measures must be taken to ensure their own safety.
On Sept 11, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., called for steeper fines and a potential ban on all future contracts for the private military and security contracting firm formerly known as Blackwater. Now on its third name, Academi (also formerly known as Xe) agreed in August to pay $7.5 million to settle charges for weapons export violations.
“This has been a repeated problem that’s gone on — this isn’t a one-off situation, and it’s not just Blackwater,” Tierney told POLITICO last Tuesday. “We’ve had companies taking millions of dollars from taxpayers, repeatedly making questionable decisions. ... If we don’t hold them accountable, then it’s going to keep happening.”
A day later Alan Estevez, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Craig Crenshaw, the Joint Staff’s vice director of logistics, testified in favor of the use of private firms before the House Armed Services Committee, recommending that the Department of Defense “continue its momentum” in the increasing use and role of civilian contractors.
It’s against this conflicting backdrop that the men and women in the private military and security contracting industry — where many veterans turn for employment after military service — find themselves.
Dennis had been a recruiter and then a loadmaster on special operations forces aircraft serving in Afghanistan before he retired. The unfolding financial crisis had him worried about job security, but there was never really any doubt about seeking employment with a contracting firm, he said.
Though he initially took a pay cut when he worked at firms such as the Virginia-based Dyncorp and Los Angeles-based McNeil Technologies (now AECOM), Dennis eventually found he was making more than three times his previous active-duty salary.
His contracting jobs were nothing like his former aviation career, however. During a one-year stint with McNeil Technologies, Dennis was stationed at a forward operating base in western Afghanistan, driving around the countryside in an armored vehicle with an Afghan liaison.
Dennis said he was concerned about the lack of safety net for contractors in Afghanistan. He worked hard to make sure the Americans in uniform would remember he was essentially one of them.
“There is very little support for contractors if something goes bad outside the wire and you need help,” Dennis said. “I tried to develop strong relationships with (active-duty military members) at my forward operating base; that way they had a face to go with the name if I needed help.”
Perception of civilian contractors took a hit among the military as well as the general public after the 2007 Blackwater shootings in Baghdad. Dennis said he thinks contractors are perhaps over-regulated now partially because of the resulting blowback.
“After the incidents in Iraq they became the poster child of the evil contractors shooting up towns,” he said. “Most contractors are not armed now, and I think (that lack of weapons) may take away what little self defense contractors had.”
And there is little leeway for illicit defensive measures. He recounted the tale of a colleague who’d lost his job for carrying an M4 rifle while out in the field in Afghanistan.
But there are real risks that come along with the job: More than 2,700 American civilian contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to numbers published by the Department of Labor.
Despite the fact that many contractors are also veterans, relations between the civilians and military are not always convivial, Dennis said.
“I’ve seen contractors mistreated on a regular basis when it comes to living conditions and other things,” he said. “There is kind of a mindset of ‘They are making lots of money, so screw those guys.’”
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