WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has hired private companies at a cost approaching $1 billion to help dispose of Saddam Hussein's arsenal in Iraq. That spending has created fierce competition for specialized workers that's draining the military's ranks of explosives experts.
Experienced military explosives specialists can earn $250,000 a year or more working for the private companies. In the military, an enlisted man with 10 years' experience can make more than $46,000. The better pay from private companies has led troops to sign on with contractors when their service ends and has aggravated tensions between military and civilian workers in Iraq. (Related story: Bomb specialists needed)
Those tensions boiled over in May, when Marines arrested 16 security workers for Zapata Engineering, one of the companies doing ammunition-disposal work in Iraq. The Marines said the workers had fired at U.S. troops and civilians. The contractors said they're innocent and claim they were treated badly by jeering Marines.
"When I was put face down on the ground to be cuffed, I heard one Marine ask me, 'How's it feel to make that contractor's money now?' " said one of the former Zapata workers, Matt Raiche of Dayton, Nev.
Private contractors are doing many jobs once done only by military personnel, such as delivering mail, washing clothes, slinging chow and serving as translators, bodyguards and interrogators.
It's the extension of a shift the Pentagon began in the 1990s in a drive to save money and focus a shrinking military on essential war-fighting jobs. But it has led contractors to hire away experienced troops to do their old jobs for up to 10 times their military salaries.
"We find ourselves, in some cases, in a bidding war for some of our most experienced soldiers and airmen," said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau.
The Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $750 million since August 2003 to hire six companies to help collect and dispose of old weaponry. An additional $100 million or so is in the pipeline to contractors, Corps of Engineers spokesman Jack Holt said. (Related story: Report raises reconstruction concerns)
So far, the contractors have collected about 430,000 tons of munitions and destroyed about 273,000 tons, Holt said.
The military trains specialized troops in explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD. But there weren't nearly enough of those troops to deal with the mountains of weapons in Iraq, Holt said.
Also, EOD troops focus on detecting, defusing and destroying the makeshift bombs called improvised explosive devices, which have killed so many U.S. and Iraqi troops.
"We see a lot of young Army and Marine EOD guys talking to the contractors on site," said Timothy Foote, who managed operations at an ammunition dump in Iraq last year as a Corps of Engineers contractor.
Working with aging and poorly labeled munitions isn't the most dangerous part of the job. At least 11 workers or subcontractors for the arms disposal companies have been killed in Iraq, all of them during attacks on their convoys.
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