Thursday, October 18, 2012

Military Contractors: Who They Are, What They Do

Albert Ashforth (Guest Blogger)

When I tell people I sometimes work as a Military Contractor, I know what their response will be. “What’s that?” After I’ve finished explaining, the second question usually is, “Is it dangerous?” I don’t blame people for asking either question.

When I say I’ve done tours in such countries as Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, I often see them looking at me strangely, clearly wondering why anyone would want to take a job like that.

A military contractor works for a firm that has a contract with the government to supply the military with a product or a service. Since the military has all kinds of needs, you could be supplying a product like weapons or a service like maintaining the weapons.

For example, the job of installing the sophisticated electronic components for an F-15E aircraft would be handled by an expert trained by McDonnell Douglas. And because the military today depends on technology to an enormous extent, people expert in those areas are always in demand.

Or, believe it or not, you could be scooping out ice cream at a Dairy Queen.

But it’s more likely you would be doing a job that is not for the faint of heart like trying to acquire intelligence. In The Rendition, Alex, the hero, is contracted in a roundabout way for a so-called “black op,” an operation for which the government wants to be able to respond with a shrug of the shoulders and “plausible denial” should it go off the rails. As it happens, the op does go off the rails, with the result that in the story it is Alex, not the government, who is left holding the bag. You might think that Alex would have learned from this experience, but he hasn’t. Later, he signs on with a contracting firm that seems to be a front for recruiting people for highly classified intelligence assignments. And that “op” too goes off the rails. I won’t say what happens then.

As a contractor, you could be one of a team guarding a VIP in a foreign country, perhaps a traveling Senator or Representative, or you could be guarding the President of Afghanistan. Today, in Afghanistan, some of the biggest contractors are firms training the Afghan police force. One of the things making this job so difficult is the fact that Afghanistan has never had a police force, and many Afghans don’t understand the reason for introducing one. Another difficulty is the fact that few Afghan males can either read or write.

But what makes this contracting job really difficult is the fact that some police trainees, after being given weapons-training and weapons, then turn them on their trainers. We call these attacks “green on blue” killings, and the only way to prevent them from occurring is not to give the police weapons. In a country like Afghanistan, a policeman without a weapon is probably not going to be able to exercise much authority.

So the answer to the second question -- whether contracting is “dangerous” -- is, “Yes, it can be.” In Afghanistan it definitely is. Last year in Afghanistan, there were roughly as many deaths among contractors as there were among service men and women.

Probably because our government does not want to publicize the amount of money it spends for contracting or say how many contractors are out there, military contracting is a low-profile occupation -- and figures to remain so. In the case of a contractor’s death, the military authorities are obliged to inform the firm for which the contractor is employed, and that firm will, in turn, inform the employee’s next of kin. Beyond that, there is seldom much further public discussion.

A third question might be, Who are these people and why do they take jobs like these? The answer is, they are nearly all former service people, and they mostly take these jobs for two reasons. One, contractors like being within a military environment. I confess that I liked the military atmosphere and missed it after again becoming a civilian. I served overseas, and I liked the order, the teamwork and most of all the opportunities I received to do all sorts of things. Second, contractors are very well paid, particularly where the duty is hazardous, and when you live on a military base it is easy to save money.

I admit that I’m surprised not only by the variety of the military contracts, but also by some of the jobs done by contractors.

When I was in the Army, we soldiers did our own cooking, cleaning and provided our own security. Today those jobs -- GI parties, KP and guard duty -- are outsourced to civilian firms. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly why. Perhaps it’s believed that civilian specialists can handle these tasks more effectively, but heck, keeping your barracks clean isn’t all that hard -- and our Friday night GI parties were often a lot of fun. And shouldn’t the task of protecting a military installation be the job of the people living there, in other words the soldiers stationed on the base? Admittedly, a four-hour tour of guard duty in a far-off land during the wee hours on a freezing cold night is not exactly fun, but it just seems to be one of a soldier’s duties. People like me sometimes wonder if the soldiers, sailors and airmen shouldn’t be doing these jobs themselves, if only as matter of self-reliance.

Cooking and preparing food might be a shade harder and more complex than swabbing and guarding, but again not so difficult that soldiers with a little training can’t handle it themselves. Service people used to eat in mess halls; now they chow down in “dining facilities” or “dee-faks.” After some fast-food chains like Dairy Queen, Subway and Burger King contracted to set up shop on a couple of installations in Afghanistan, there were a few contractors asking questions like “One or two scoops?”

Albert Ashforth’s first novel, The Rendition, came out this year. Al served in the Army overseas and worked for two New York City newspapers. As a military contractor, he has worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Germany, Macedonia and Afghanistan. He is now an assistant professor at the State University of New York and lives in New York City.


Anonymous said...

Al, this is a stunning blog! I read recently about your book and look forward to it immensely! Wish all the best of success to you with it! Thelma Straw

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Al. This is fascinating and a nice change of pace for us. Dairy Queen in Afghanistan--the imagination boggles.

Debbie Carter said...

A vivid profile of life for our service people in Afghanistan. I was barely aware of the range of services they perform. Is it worth it? When we first went over there, I didn't expect the conflict to last this long. It costs too much money and Afghans don't want us there. It's a mess.