||In many ways, Katy Helvenston is like any mother who has lost a son in Iraq. She talks to others who have survived their kids. She wonders whether she could have done more to keep him out of harm's way. She breaks down in tears at random intervals.
But Helvenston has problems that military mothers do not have. Her son Scott, who was killed in 2004 at the age of 38, was neither a soldier nor, really, a civilian. He was an ex--Navy seal who worked for a private security firm called Blackwater. Instead of a headstone at Arlington, he has his name etched in a rock at Blackwater's corporate campus in North Carolina. And Helvenston says that three years later, she still has no real answers from the company about what led to her son's death--a death that she believes was due in part to the company's negligence.
You probably remember how Scott Helvenston and his three colleagues died. Video of their killings made newscasts around the world on March 31, 2004, when a Blackwater security convoy was ambushed by gunmen in Fallujah, Iraq. The four men were dragged from their cars, mutilated by a mob and set on fire. The torsos of Helvenston and fellow Blackwater employee Jerry Zovko were hung from the green steel girders of a bridge on the edge of town. In Fallujah, it's still known as Blackwater Bridge.
It was a loss not just for four families. It was a turning point in an already foundering war. An ecstatic mob in the center of a major Iraqi town had torn Americans limb from limb in front of rolling cameras. A series of catastrophic recriminations followed. Muqtada al-Sadr, emboldened by the attack, called for the first Shi'ite uprising against the occupation. U.S. Marines retook Fallujah but flattened parts of the city in the process and set the stage for future cycles of invasion and uprising that have scarred the city--and the country--ever since.
It is telling that this watershed moment involved American employees of a private security contractor. Of all the changes in tactics that have made the war in Iraq distinct from prior U.S. engagements, perhaps no shift is as profound as the massive hiring--and varied deployment--of private contractors in combat zones. There are an estimated 100,000 contractors in Iraq, compared with a fraction of that the last time the U.S. was fighting there, and they are not working in just mess halls. They are bodyguards for vips, snipers in the field, translators and interrogators. They man checkpoints at Army bases and run supply convoys through the streets of Iraq. As with much of the occupation, the emergence of guns for hire among this contractor group was not part of the original plan. The number of contractors swelled, the insurgency grew, and the military was unable to provide adequate security for all of the civilian workforce. So companies like Blackwater began offering those services--at a high price--in the military's stead.
Helvenston, along with the families of the three men killed with her son--Wes Batalona, Mike Teague and Zovko--are suing Blackwater for wrongful death in a case that, after more than two years and a stop before the Supreme Court, has landed in front of a North Carolina state judge, who will move it along April 9. The families want to know what happened that day in Fallujah. But they also want to press their claims that Blackwater, in its zeal to exploit this unexpected market for private security men, showed a callous disregard for the safety of its employees. In the process, the case of the Fallujah Four, as some now refer to them, has stirred a nest of questions about accountability, oversight and regulations governing for-profit gunslingers in war zones.
Blackwater Becomes a Player
Erik Prince, 37, Blackwater's ambitious founder and sole owner, could have taken over his father's billion-dollar auto-parts empire. But he was attracted to the battlefield from a young age. He enrolled in the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and although he finished college at a school closer to home, he eventually became a naval officer and was attached to the élite Navy seal Team 8 based in Norfolk, Va. He served in Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East. In 1995, when his father died, Prince left the Navy and returned to Michigan. He and his sisters sold the company, and Prince took his share and founded Blackwater USA.
Before 9/11, Blackwater mostly trained swat teams and other specialized law-enforcement officers at its 6,000-acre campus on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina. With the war on terrorism, however, a new niche business developed. The State Department did not have the internal resources or Marines to protect all of its diplomats and overseas embassies, but Blackwater had access to a deep roster of former special-forces soldiers who, it argued, could do the job. It wasn't long before Prince was offering a broad range of services, from protection by bodyguards to aerial surveillance, for the State Department, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies. In 2003, Blackwater landed its first truly high-profile contract: guarding Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in Iraq, at the cost of $21 million in 11 months. Since June 2004, Blackwater has been paid more than $320 million out of a $1 billion, five-year State Department budget for the Worldwide Personal Protective Service, which protects U.S. officials and some foreign officials in conflict zones.
Prince's political connections may well have helped his company win these crucial contracts from the Bush Administration. He was a White House intern under George W. Bush's father. His family have long been G.O.P donors; his sister Betsy Prince DeVos chaired the Michigan Republican Party from 1996 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2005. And Blackwater has hired U.S. national-security vets onto its executive staff. Among them: Cofer Black, the onetime head of counterterrorism at the cia, and Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general whose duties included investigating contractual agreements with firms like Blackwater.
The Pentagon didn't plan for the contractors going so heavily into the war theater, says Lawrence Korb, Department of Defense manpower chief under President Ronald Reagan. "When they went into Iraq, the assumption was they had won," he says. "They did know there was going to be continuing fighting. This thing grew far beyond where anybody thought it would."
Now Blackwater and other security contractors are a ubiquitous presence in Iraq. The skies buzz with their single-striped Little Bird helicopters. When I was a correspondent in Baghdad in 2004, Blackwater convoys were notorious for bringing a Wild West mentality to the streets of Baghdad. They were easily identifiable--speeding white suvs with black-tinted windows and automatic weapons pointed at you. Hired guns are even more in evidence at the checkpoints in Baghdad's Green Zone, although there is a hierarchy as to who guards what. The outer gates of compounds are typically guarded by third-country nationals, experienced soldiers of fortune from such countries as Nepal, Chile and Fiji who are paid a fraction of what a British or American former soldier or policeman would get. The highest-paid independent contractors are known as tier-1 personnel. These are the former U.S. special-forces soldiers. On Helvenston's tour in Iraq, he was making about $600 a day. He was on a 60-day rotation and stood to make some $36,000 in two months.
What Went Wrong in Fallujah
When Helvenston was killed, Blackwater was expanding its business in Iraq from being just bodyguards. The company wanted to make a bid to take over security for convoys delivering kitchen supplies to U.S. military bases in Iraq. The families claim that Helvenston and the others were on one of the first such missions, put together hastily and on the cheap to impress their prospective client--a few contractors up the chain--the U.S. Army. Time has obtained the first eyewitness testimony given under oath that describes the events leading up to that convoy. In a 194-page sworn deposition filed with the Department of Labor in a separate legal proceeding, Christopher Berman, who worked and roomed with Helvenston in weeks leading up to his death, describes a company's managers overwhelmed by logistics and plagued by volatile tempers as they rushed to take over the new contract.
Like Helvenston, Berman had been a Navy seal. The two had never served together but knew each other. Helvenston had modeled in a Navy seals calendar Berman had produced, and Berman had helped sell fitness videos that Helvenston had made. Before Helvenston died, said Berman, the two had been thinking of starting a rock-climbing business together. Neither man had discussed going to work for Blackwater before they literally ran into each other boarding the same plane at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif. By coincidence, they were both heading to Moyock, N.C., for a 10-day Blackwater training course. They spent the training together as roommates.
Berman says there was a disjuncture between what they were told in training and the realities they found on the ground. Most of the training they did at Moyock "revolved around armored vehicles and operating armored vehicles," he testified. The vehicles that the Blackwater team was driving on March 31 were not armored; they had only a piece of metal behind the backseat. During training, team members were told that they would be sent to Iraq with semiautomatic M4 machine guns and Glock handguns and that larger weapons, like a belt-fed 5.56 machine gun squad automatic weapon, would be issued upon arrival. They were also told they would be doing advance work in Iraq, gathering intelligence, inspecting routes and doing prep work before starting a new contract.
But when they arrived in Iraq, there were no heavy weapons or hard cars. Just as important, their project manager, a heavyset American they called Shrek, prevented them from doing the promised preparations, Berman says. Blackwater's team was in a hurry to take over the contract to escort kitchen supplies to a U.S. military base near Fallujah from a British security company. The British company offered to have the Blackwater guys ride along with them to get to know the general routes and threats, but Shrek said his team was "way too busy," according to Berman. Blackwater also didn't provide the men with any maps, Berman said, and the few they did obtain came after "begging around" on nearby U.S. military bases. They did have global-positioning systems, said Berman, but lacked the coordinates of their destinations.
The day Helvenston died, there were only four men on his team, two per vehicle, instead of Blackwater's standard three per vehicle for security convoys. Berman testified that the presence of only two operators in Helvenston's vehicle contributed to his death because it "took away the entire back field of operation"--no third person in the rear vehicle who could be assigned to watch for an attack from behind.
Blackwater's defense revolves around the issue of who has legal responsibility when something goes wrong. Blackwater's lawyers say the four men were operating as part of the U.S. "total force" in Iraq. As such, they claim, the company could no more be sued than the U.S. Army could for something that happened in a war zone. And they argue that any compensation for the families (28 Blackwater men have died in Iraq) would have to come from the U.S. government, not from Blackwater.
That legal strategy could prevail. Congress passed the Defense Base Act in World War II to give construction workers who were building bases in Europe coverage in case of injury or death. And the law was expanded in 1958 to include contractors operating off bases in war zones. But there are also early signs that Blackwater's argument may not win the day. In a pretrial hearing, the North Carolina judge scolded Blackwater for saying that it speaks as part of the total military force. "Blackwater has wrapped itself in the American flag," Judge Donald Stephens told the firm's lawyers. "Blackwater Security Consulting LLC is not the United States government."
Meanwhile, the U.S. is starting to investigate the company. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform invited Helvenston, Batalona's daughter Crystal, Teague's widow Rhonda and Zovko's mother Donna to testify in February. The issues of negligence were raised at the emotional hearing, but so were more technical violations. There is, for example, the question of whether the chain of subcontractors that led to Blackwater on that day was even authorized to hire private security. Under logcap, the contracting program that provides private logistical support to the U.S. military in Kuwait and Iraq, all security was supposed to be provided by the military.
A Push to Scrutinize the Gunslingers
These days Blackwater is pushing ahead, looking for new products it can sell. It is expanding the number and type of aircraft it can provide, including blimps for aerial surveillance. Last year it won the lucrative contract to protect the U.S. embassy in Iraq--the largest American embassy in the world. Blackwater vice chairman Black says he believes the company could also help provide muscle in peacekeeping missions. "Helping people and doing good is a good thing," he told Time. "Blackwater is the premier company in the training area and security solutions area. If my mother needed protection, if you're going to Iraq, you'd be nuts not to hire someone like Blackwater."
The Pentagon seems likely to keep creating opportunities for private contractors. The agency's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, a strategic assessment of the future for the U.S. war machine, envisions their expanded use. The report describes contractors as an integral part of the "total force" and describes ways to further integrate contractors into war-fighting capability. The previous strategic report, published before 9/11, doesn't even contain the word contractors.
Despite the Pentagon's support, U.S. lawmakers are calling for a dramatic reappraisal of how the military uses these men. There is certain to be greater demands for transparency. Since private contractors now are not required to open their books, no one can be certain how many are in Iraq; even the Pentagon doesn't keep track. Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who has taken a personal interest in Katy Helvenston's story, introduced a bill in the House that would, for the first time, require the creation of databases to monitor the deployment and cost of contractors. Only last fall did the Department of Defense conduct a poll of some contracting companies, which came back with the suspiciously round number of 100,000 contractors operating in Iraq. "An owner of a circus," says Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors, "faces more regulation and inspection than a private military company."
The night before Scott died, Katy Helvenston had turned her phone's ringer off while she slept. When she woke up, there was a message from him.
"Hi, Mom. It's your son. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon here," he said. "We're all safe with our body armor. It's all good, Mom. Just wanted to say I'm safe and that I love you and, ah, I love you, and have a great day."
For almost three years, Katy has kicked herself for missing his call. She wonders what Scott would have told her about some of the things that were going wrong with his mission that day. Maybe she could have persuaded him not to go. She knows that's unlikely--the same kind of willful wishing that any mother whose child was killed in action might have. It's too late to keep him safe, but she still wants to know what happened after he hung up the phone. And because her son died for his company, not his country, she's in for a fight.
Copyright 2007 Time Inc