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The orange desert swayed from side to side, from horizon to distant horizon, as we corkscrewed into Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). I was in Flying Carpet's thirty-seat prop jet (soon to be pictured in the Wall Street Journal); and as I looked down at the terminal complex below, my stomach churned. Soon I would be working in one of those buildings. The terminal was the ultimate symbol of America's presence in Iraq, and I could imagine a target painted on every rooftop below.
I had come to the Middle East not so much for the modest salary I would be drawing, but for the adventure and for the opportunity to serve in what some experts were already calling World War III. I had been trolling Monster.com and had run across an ad by Custer Battles (CB) calling for "security men." I googled the company and found that it was a "security" outfit whose services included cargo delivery and convoy protection. I also discovered that an old buddy of mine, Scooter, a former CIA agent, was on the board of directors. So I gave him a call.
After some catching up, I said, "Scooter, I see your people are looking for security men. Is this something I should be interested in?"
"No," he said. "Working as a guard on the perimeter of Baghdad Airport would be a waste of your time and talents. Give me a couple of days to see what I can do for you."
Sure enough, he got back to me a couple weeks later.
"We've created a job for you," he said, "one that will take advantage of both your military and civilian intelligence experience. It'll be dangerous work, but not excessively dangerous if you operate low profile. The pay isn't too good, but I can assure you the place is full of future business opportunities for Americans who get in on the ground floor."
The more I listened, the more I realized this opportunity would draw on all my skills and background as an entrepreneur and former infantry officer. Scooter knew that I had been trying to get into the fight since Afghanistan, when he attempted unsuccessfully to help me join the CIA's paramilitary branch in late 2001.
"That sounds very interesting," I said. "But first I'll have to discuss this with Tanya. We have two children now-a girl, eight, and a boy, four. They'll figure prominently in the equation."
"I understand," he said. "I hope you'll come aboard. We can use you."
I liked the idea of serving in Iraq, where America's chips were on the table. The events of 9/11 haunted me. Maybe for me this would be payback time. It was a tough decision, but in the end, Tanya and I agreed it would be worth the separation. I could come home now and then, and after a year we would be in a position to invest in our own business again, with my international security bona fides burnished. Too many positives. Manageable negatives. I interviewed, was offered the job, and took it. Now, as we approached the landing field, I was about to find out if I had made a good career move or a fatal mistake.
The pilot, a young Jordanian, hewed his tight turns inside the perimeter of the huge aerodrome in order to keep from flying over the outskirts of Baghdad, where the bad guys might seize the opportunity to come after us with a man-portable, surface-to-air missile. A little over a month earlier, the insurgents had nearly knocked a DHL plane out of the sky. If it hadn't been for the skill of the pilot-who used engine power alone to guide the rudderless Airbus A300 back down to the runway-the plane would have dropped to earth like a concrete mixer. They say the pilot never flew again. When we finally touched ground, still in one piece, and rolled to a stop, I understood a little of how he must've felt.
In fact, not much flew into BIAP those days. The airport used to be called Saddam International, and you could still see the faded outline of the dictator's name in four-foot letters across the main terminal's facade. The U.S. military used the south side of the airfield; and everyone else, including my new employer, Custer Battles, LLC, conducted air ops on the north side. The only nonmilitary planes landing were a very few charter flights: Flying Carpet from Amman, Jordan, or Beirut, Lebanon; AirServ for humanitarian organizations; the twice-daily flights on Royal Jordanian Air (flown by South African mercenaries); and giant Russian cargo planes flying in from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The cargo planes would be my focus. I would be managing Secure Global Distribution (SGD), Custer Battles' logistics subsidiary-run out of BIAP-trucking goods nationwide in Iraq for USAID, U.S. Army, General Dynamics, Halliburton, and other U.S. contractors. We delivered anything the transport planes hauled in: brand-new Ford SUVs; luggage; medical supplies; office equipment, everything from huge rolls of carpet and conference tables to paper clips and staples; even school supplies, including books, blackboards, boxes of pencils, and reams of paper.
Our specialty was shipments to the hot spots of the insurgency in the now-infamous Sunni Triangle, where ambushes and roadside bombs were as routine as breakfast. While I was with CB, we never missed a delivery, despite the fact that we operated daily in the same battle space where the insurgents regularly shot at and bombed the U.S. military.
I deplaned with another CB employee, Frank, who was returning from Christmas leave in Texas. Frank had been in Iraq long enough to qualify as an expert in staying alive, a subject I hoped to master. He was a Mexican American, slight of build, but I noticed that the muscles in his arms were lean and hard. He told me later that he graduated from college on a track-and-field scholarship awarded for his speed in the mile. I was glad I'd kept in shape.
"I'll show you your office first," he said. "Then we'll drive into Baghdad and you can unpack and meet the rest of the staff."
Custer Battles had offices at the airport, in one of the passenger terminals, which overlooked the 3,300-foot runway where the cargo planes landed. My second-floor office in Terminal C was directly over the commercial shipping operations on the other side of the looping, two-deck airport passenger departure and arrival ramps. The plate-glass window at the entrance to the building was shot out during the invasion, and a contract security guard from Nepal, one of the renowned British Army-trained Gurkhas, stood watch during working hours, monitoring foot traffic into CB's offices.
Custer Battles operated in Iraq because they had won the contract to provide security for Baghdad International Airport in the early chaotic days after the U.S. invasion in the summer of 2003. My role now was to help the company expand its services into the most dangerous spots, which were increasing in number given the growing Iraqi insurgency. While no delivery was completely safe, CB was carving a niche for itself by doing the jobs that others wouldn't touch. I knew the dangers before I accepted the job, and I'd come anyway.
We walked up the steps to the second floor, and I followed Frank down the corridor until he stopped, fished some keys from his pocket, found the right one, and unlocked the door.
"Here's where you'll be working," he said.
I stepped inside and looked around. It wasn't the executive suite at Microsoft, but it had three fine new desks, with swivel chairs and a long, brown real-leather sofa. The carpet also looked new, except for a couple of divots caused by what looked like bullets.
I asked what made them.
"Accidental discharge," he said. I didn't press him for details.
"Now, we'll go downstairs and get you armed. I have hidden my MP5 [submachine gun] in the locker in our office. That's all I'll need."
I followed him down the second-floor hallway, where he opened a steel door with a hefty padlock and led me into the company security office and armory. There I met the Officer of the Day, who immediately started moaning about missing weapons. Apparently, while everyone was away on Christmas leave, one of CB's now-departed American managers had stolen a couple of light machine guns, some sniper rifles, pistols, ammunition, computers, and over $50,000 in petty cash.
"We've only got an M-4 assault rifle that belongs in the Gurkha checkpoint guard rotation," the OD said. "You'll have to return it tomorrow morning."
He took one down from a rack and tossed it to me. I held the rifle in one hand to feel the weight.
"It's a shorter version of the M-16 I carried in the U.S. Army Infantry," I said. "It's a good weapon."
"Yes," he said, "but you'll need something more permanent than that."
"Well, like an AK-47 and a pistol. We'll get you those tomorrow."
"What about body armor?"
"All we have is this." The OD handed me a lightweight Kevlar-like vest with thin metal "chicken plates" that would barely stop a 9mm pistol round, not to mention the omnipresent AK-47 high-powered rifle bullet. The next week I would confiscate for my own use a level 4 polymer-plated vest from a commercial shipment that CB was trying to sell. This armor would stop five AK rounds in a row to the chest or back, with serious bruising to the wearer of course, but with no penetration. Nevertheless, the lack of adequate body armor and weaponry on my first day in country did not inspire confidence in Custer Battles.
As we headed out to Frank's bulletproof gray BMW 728 in what used to be the rental car lot, I asked, "Where will I be living?"
"We have a company executive safe house in the middle of Baghdad," Frank said. "It's about fifteen miles from here-the former Syrian ambassador's place. It's nice, just this side of a palace, in the upscale Mansour district."
The living quarters sounded great. I'd expected barracks and army cots. Frank slipped behind the wheel of his BMW sedan, and I settled into the passenger seat. Soon we were hurtling down Airport Road as a viscous darkness descended on us. Ahead we saw the feeble lights of Baghdad. I sat next to him, cradling my assault rifle, riding shotgun, remembering my days as an Army Ranger. Obviously I'd be able to put all that Ranger training to good use. It was beginning to dawn on me that we were in the middle of a shooting war-and I was a combatant.
Frank was a former United States Marine Corps (USMC) Force Recon swimmer, so we had some things in common. As we bounced along the highway, he told me about running the logistics operation. He had been in country since the preceding November.
"January is a good time to be in Iraq," he said. "Right now the weather's rainy and cool. Unless you grew up in Death Valley, you can't imagine how hot it will get in the summer."
Before my tour was over, I found out. And the weather wasn't the only thing that heated up. The year was 2004, and the insurgency was shifting into high gear, with the worst yet to come. For example, at that time, Frank could still drive around Baghdad all by himself. He could even go to the bazaars with the Arabs because he looked like an American Indian, not an Anglo-Irish like me. Even after the reign of terror intensified, Frank was OK in Baghdad just so long as he didn't speak.
Soon enough the danger escalated. American civilians began to disappear from the streets, only to show up on al Jazeera TV, arms and legs bound, surrounded by masked men brandishing swords. Even when finally tanned by the desert sun, with my thick brown hair and full Taliban-style beard, I stood out as a non-Iraqi, though Iraqis were never quite sure where I came from. Once a former special counter-terrorist policeman-one of our Egyptian clients-raised that question, and when told America, he shook his head, refusing to believe it.
As we passed four or five Arabs waiting to cross the otherwise empty highway, Frank told me matter-of-factly, "You have to keep a sharp lookout, especially when you're driving along Airport Road. The insurgents' modus operandi is to wrap their heads with a shmag just before they strike. That may give you a few seconds warning."
"What's a shmag?" I asked.
"A checkered cotton scarf that's usually either red and white or black and white. Normally it's worn to protect your head from sun and sand, mostly by men who come from tribal areas outside Baghdad. You'll sometimes see shmags on workers in the city. Of course, in attacks they're used as masks, worn over the face with a slit left open for the eyes."
We rode in silence for a while, the gates of the airport receding behind us, burning red with the fading light from the afterglow of the set sun. Palm trees, motionless in the breezeless night, lined both sides of the road and grew in clumps in the wide sand median. Beyond the edge of the four-lane highway, low white walls lined the outskirts of residential suburbs with names such as al Jihad. Ahead, Baghdad was a silhouette against the darkening sky.
Baghdad. The very name conjured up visions of flying carpets, minarets, muezzins, and the 1,001 nights of Scheherazade. What I saw ahead in the distance looked like the typical Islamic Middle Eastern urban skyline-off-white stucco, flat-roofed office buildings and houses interspersed with cylindrical towers of mosques that all reflected the moonlight in a yellowish hue. As we drove through the dimly lit downtown area, I could see that this was a different world.
Even the newer hotels and the few commercial high-rises had facades that were Islamic in their intricate, wrought-iron design. The pointed arch was ever present, defining every possible doorway, window, or opening. I had the impression that the builders of this city had made few compromises with the Western world.
Some of the Arab men walking down the street were dressed in what Frank told me was a dishdasha-a one-piece robe made of wool or cotton basically unchanged in style since before Christ's time. Their red-and-white-checked shmags were held in place by black bands.
"Are they always dressed that way?" I asked Frank.
"No," he said. "Most of the men in Baghdad dress in pants and collared shirts. The city is more modern."
"What about the women? I don't see many on the streets. What do they wear?"
"Mostly abayas, those long, black full-body dresses. Some cover their heads and faces. Some don't. Some of them wear Western clothes. I've seen a few in jeans and T-shirts."
We slowed to a crawl, hung a right, and stopped on a short entrance ramp formed by three-foot-tall concrete vehicle barriers on the left and right. The black iron gate was manned by two African guards with AK-47s and a Gurkha with an MP5. The Nepalese stepped forward, greeted "Mr. Frank" happily, and then opened the gate for our BMW. Once inside the gate, we were at the top of a sloping driveway leading downward to a garage under the huge house. I thought, Man, the security here is light! There was literally no stand-off distance from the street to protect from car bombs or rifle fire. I looked up as we stepped out of the car and saw Saddam Tower looming just across the dark street. The building was 205 meters tall and mounted a multifloored glass observation deck topped with a radio antenna. I made a mental note that this would be an excellent landmark for navigating since the tower, the tallest structure in the capital, was visible from almost all of western Baghdad.
"You're home," Frank said.
The Gurkha at the gate, I later learned, was named Deal, a dark, short, and stocky man (as the high-altitude mountaineers from the Himalayas tended to be). He offered to take care of my luggage but went away empty handed. All I had was my carry-on from the flight into BIAP and one duffel bag. Because the Flying Carpet plane did not have much lift capacity, we had shipped all of our check-in bags via taxi SUV from Amman, Jordan, across the seven-hundred-mile-wide Syrian Desert to Baghdad. At a rest stop at Trebil, the Jordanian border post with Iraq, someone stole my fully packed hanging bag. I knew it had to been an inside job-Contractor probably an employee of the local Amman-based company that CB had carelessly hired for the trip. From then on I bought my clothes at the military PX at BIAP.
We entered through the twelve-foot-tall, heavy oak-paneled double doors with massive iron-hoop knockers and walked down the seventy-foot-long hallway paved with glazed blood-red tiles and bordered by intricate, ceiling-high wood lattice. To the left, we passed a sunken room, lined with plump sofas. Several men sat there, drinking whiskey and Heineken beer, some Middle Easterners, some obviously Americans.
Excerpted from CONTRACTOR COMBATANTS by Carter Andress Copyright © 2007 by Carter Andress. Excerpted by permission.
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