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Blackwater: Inside America's Private Army

The Virginian-Pilot | July 23, 2006
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN AND BILL SIZEMORE

Private military companies are becoming a critical part of 21st century warfare, and Blackwater USA is on the leading edge. The company offers an academy that turns out corporate warriors who work in hot spots around the world. Above, trainee Gregory Collier screams for team members to evacuate the area during an executive protection drill. chris curry / the virginian-pilot

Part 1 of 6

MOYOCK, N.C. - Today's after-lunch lesson: How to break a man's arm with your bare hands.

The students pay close attention. On a patch of grass under a powder-blue sky, they pair off to practice the moves - like the steps to some merciless dance:

Hold here. Pivot there. Trap arm. Bend. And snap.

DO YOU KNOW THE LINGO?

Finding the right label for today’s hired guns isn’t easy. “Contractor” is often used, but it’s vague, because the term also refers to thousands of civilian reconstruction workers. Insiders usually object to “security guard” (too mundane) and paramilitary (too aggressive).

They say they are not “mercenaries” – a term defined by the Geneva Conventions as someone who, among other things, is paid to take a direct part in the hostilities of a country other than his own.

Slavko Ilic circles the grappling forms, darting in to shout encouragement or correct a technique. He's an extra-large martial arts expert. He sports a shaved head, chiseled arms and the look of a man who does not back down.

"Again!" Ilic barks. "Do it again!"

Getting it right in class now could be the difference between life and death later. Graduates are, most likely, headed to the messy battlefields of the war on terrorism - a fitful conflict with no front lines.

These men are not soldiers, at least not anymore. All have military experience, but in order to join a new breed of warriors - private security contractors - they must pass this eight-week, $20,000 course.

To get here, they've sold possessions, quit jobs and left behind families. To stay here, they must measure up. Eight have already washed out; the 11 survivors have little time for sympathy.

Sweat darkens their camo-green jumpsuits. They've moved on to the next session. Two-by-two, they wrestle for possession of a pistol - one trying to snatch the weapon, the other trying to keep it. Muscles strain. Joints pop. Arms wipe impatiently at bloody lips.

Ilic steps in to demonstrate the tactics again. One fluid move later, his opponent is eating turf.

"Don't worry," Ilic says calmly to the helpless form trapped in his hold. "I'll bring flowers to your funeral."

Just a half-hour's drive from downtown Norfolk, Mow-yock, as the locals call it, is an unassuming cluster of mom-and-pop shops, weathered grain tanks and quick marts.

For most drivers, it's just a blip on the blacktop heading to the Outer Banks. There is no clue that this tiny border town is the home of anything big enough to make news around the globe.

But it's here all right, just off the main drag, down sissy-sounding Puddin Ridge Road. Cruise past a neighborhood of modest homes, beyond an arc of table-flat farms. Three miles in is the bear paw logo, on a sign, all by itself - a no-words-needed, top-of-the-food-chain message.

A little farther is the end of the road - for the public, that is - and a gate that separates two vastly different worlds.

On the other side is Blackwater USA, a booming private military company that's helping put a new face on 21st century warfare.

Only the authorized get past the gate. A buzz-cut guard sees to that, a handgun strapped to his thigh. Inside, a winding road leads to the heart of the 7,000-acre compound - a bigger spread than any military base in South Hampton Roads.

Heavy equipment scurries to and fro, moving mountains of dirt. Over here, a 6,000-foot runway is taking shape for an air wing coming up from Florida. Over there, a 1-acre hangar will shelter the company's state-of-the-art blimp project.

Just past a 15-acre lake is the new nerve center: a 65,000-square-foot headquarters with 300 rooms. Opened this spring, it is the largest building in Camden County. Machine-gun barrels serve as handles on the heavy front doors. A receptionist sits behind a desk fashioned from armor plating.

An image of strength is vital in this muscle-bound business, and Blackwater is a top dog in its field. In a decade, the company has grown from a sketch on a scrap of paper to a superstar in the rapidly expanding universe of the private military industry.

It's a controversial arena, deeply divided by an international debate over the growing use of hired guns. Blackwater has been a lightning rod in the middle of it all since March 31, 2004, when the company's name became linked with the grisly image of charred American corpses hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.

None of that has hurt the bottom line. On any given day, Blackwater has as many as 3,000 security contractors working in far-flung hot spots and some 500 paying clients in Moyock - learning to crash cars, shoot targets, board ships, storm schools, rescue hostages, bust down doors.

At Blackwater, one thing is perfectly clear:

There is big money to be made in a world full of bad news.


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