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."