Ay, mate. Get in. You will sit over here."
Mike Hardiman served in Iraq as a contract employee of the Defense Department in 2004 and the State Department in 2005, working with the Baghdad municipal government and the national anti-corruption agency (firstname.lastname@example.org). He plans to return to Iraq later this year as an Army contractor.
Security team leader Nigel jerked me out of my early morning stupor, barking instructions to both his crew and the people he was charged with transporting and protecting on a three-day trip through the north of Iraq. At dinner the night before, Nigel and the gang had been friendly and talkative. Retired British special-forces soldiers, they had regaled us with stories of the Falkland Islands War of the 1980s.
But in this morning's predawn light, it was all business. Sulaymaniya in Kurdistan was low-risk, but travel through oil-rich Kirkuk and Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit would be more "dodgy," as our British team would say. The visit passed without incident, and I appreciated every minute of their experienced and professional protection.
Nigel and company were employed by one of the private security contractors that have proliferated since 9/11, in particular since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. With macho names like Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Falcon, and playing an expanded role compared to previous conflicts, they have drawn attention and criticism.
What I saw in Iraq was that these contractors filled in where our armed forces did not need to be. Having them protect key personnel, guard convoys and defend supply depots has sharply reduced the number of American troops needed to be deployed overseas. Contractors have been exposed to significant danger and suffered more casualties than nearly all of the armed forces of those nations contributing to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Upon my return to the United States, I saw a lot of media stories about the incredible paychecks contractors were receiving and the massive cost of all this to the taxpayer. Prominent among the critics has been Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, and others who have proclaimed that some contractors were making more money than the secretary of defense or two-star generals. In Mr. Murtha's words, "How in the hell do you justify that?"
Here is how I justify it.
By hiring contractors, the government can bring on experts in their fields, from personal security to linguistics to crop irrigation, without incurring three major long-term costs of permanent government employees: pensions, medical coverage and job security. When the job is done, the contractors are gone.
Take Blackwater, for example, generally considered the most elite of the private security firms. It has no contracts with the Defense Department, but a major deal with the Department of State to protect prominent visitors to Iraq (such as Mr. Murtha) and "high value" Americans working in Iraq. When traveling with my boss I was protected by Blackwater teams. Every Blackwater contractor I met was a veteran of an elite military unit, and the company's personal security teams worked together seamlessly.
Personnel of this quality, exposed constantly to the dangers of war, don't come cheap. Some of the security contractors and specialists from other fields who are working in Iraq are, in fact, paid like generals -- in terms of salary. But they do not get pensions, medical coverage or job security. A general officer or top civilian in the Defense Department also would have a huge staff waiting on him and a nice bomb-proof office in the Pentagon.
Mr. Murtha should be glad to have high-quality protection the next time he leads a congressional delegation to Iraq. I hope he also realizes the savings to taxpayers before he returns home to complain about the expense of contractors.
Another legend I have heard frequently is that there is a river of tax-free money flowing into the pockets of contractors. Under limited circumstances, a portion of the salary of some contractors is tax-free. My situation was more typical. I made a lot of money in Iraq and paid taxes on every penny of it. I was taken off the payroll when my Iraq service ended, and the U.S. government has no future pension or medical obligations to me resulting from my time overseas.
Security contractors in Iraq have taken considerable pressure off of our soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen by providing defensive and protective services. This has reduced the need for ever longer deployments, which keep our troops away from their families, and it has saved the taxpayers money.