Frank Sellin went to work in Iraq for San Diego's Titan Corp. to serve his country – and because the job paid far better than any other work he could find in Southern California.
He knew it would be dangerous; he is an ex-Marine.
But his attitude about the job changed one blistering July morning in 2004, as he drove a Nissan SUV down a street in Mosul past a group of men crouched around a red Opel sedan.
He heard the distinctive "pop-pop-pop" of an AK-47 assault rifle, then a series of "tick-tick-ticks" as slugs punched through the SUV's thin metal sides. A bullet ricocheted into his ankle, and he felt searing pain.
It was an ambush.
Sellin hit the gas pedal, but the engine died as more bullets slammed into the truck and blasted through the windows. Bullet fragments ripped through the upper back and neck of Scott Mahler, a former Riverside County sheriff's deputy who was seated next to Sellin.
Bleeding and terrified, the Titan employees jumped from the crippled SUV and scrambled into a friendly truck that was following them in the convoy.
"That ambush really changed our minds," said Sellin, who returned home to Kearny Mesa in November after more than a year in Iraq. "After almost dying, I realized it wasn't worth the $125,000."
Like Sellin and Mahler, a growing number of civilian employees of U.S. companies contracting with the military have come home wounded – both physically and psychologically – by their on-the-job experiences in Iraq.
Operation Iraqi Freedom has put into practice the Pentagon's thinking that the U.S. military can wage a cheaper, more efficient war by outsourcing many of the behind-the-lines support functions. But the lines between warriors and civilians have blurred amid the carnage of Iraq's insurgency.
Employees of Titan and other corporations have become part of an experiment in government contracting run largely by trial and error. Several current and former Titan employees say they worked in a land of chaos and lawlessness, where company rules were often vague and employees were sometimes left to fend for themselves.
They complained of flak vests that lacked body armor, satellite phones that never worked and unsafe vehicles. Some say they were asked to drive Iraq's perilous roads in "thin-skinned" trucks while carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll cash, but weren't allowed to carry guns.
"We called it 'the Wild West.' It was uncontrollable," said Marc Hill, a Titan manager from Arizona who was based near Baghdad from June 2003 until March 2004. "There was very poor planning, and they put people's lives in danger."
Rick Inghram, who was Titan's highest-ranking executive in Iraq for most of 2004, acknowledged that "a working experiment" aptly describes Titan's experience in Iraq. But he said the company has worked with the Army over the past year to better protect its employees.
169 employees killed
Titan and its subcontractors have lost 169 employees, more than any other contractor in Iraq, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The company's fatalities outnumber the casualties of any coalition force other than those of the United States and Iraq.
The defense contractor is among the three largest U.S. civilian employers in Iraq. More than 4,000 translators and interpreters work there for Titan under what has become a billion-dollar contract with the Army that also includes 1,000 translators in 23 other countries.
Titan referred most questions about its activities in Iraq to Inghram, who said management has done a good job under difficult circumstances in administering a contract unlike any in the company's history. Inghram said there was no precedent for training civilians to work shoulder to shoulder with soldiers in the field.
"I never had that kind of training," said Inghram, who joined Titan in 2003 after retiring from the Marines as a colonel. "In 31 years in the Marine Corps, nobody ever sat me down and gave me a class on contracting on the battlefield. Ever."
Gene W. Ray, Titan's founding chairman and chief executive, has described the company's contract as extremely dangerous work. He also has often praised Titan's employees and translators in Iraq, saying they have received hundreds of commendations from the military.
"There are a number of people who are playing a critical, critical role for our armed forces," Ray said. "It's extremely important, from my perspective, to support our military forces in Iraq."
Titan's linguists, most of whom are Iraqi nationals, are scattered throughout the country. Some work on bases or in prisons; others are attached to field units. They are managed primarily by U.S. employees who usually have experience in the military or law enforcement.
Like everyone else in Iraq, the linguists and their managers have had to cope with an increasingly deadly insurgency. The turning point for many Americans came in April 2004 with the grisly killings of four U.S. civilians in Fallujah. The four, including Oceanside resident Scott Helvenston, were working for Blackwater Security Consulting of Moyock, N.C.
From March 2003, when the war began, to March 2004, before the attacks in Fallujah, 48 U.S. civilian contract employees were killed in Iraq and 379 were wounded.
Over the next 15 months, from April 2004 until June 30, 2005, 283 died and 3,018 were wounded, according to data kept by the Labor Department.
Titan's Iraqi employees typically live in the communities where U.S. military units are based and are paid about $800 a month, company officials said. A second category of Titan linguists come from outside Iraq, mainly from the United States, and earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year. A handful of translators with "top secret" security clearances work for Titan under a third category.
The site managers, who are usually stationed on a military base, sometimes develop close relationships with the Iraqi nationals they supervise. They "start feeling about these linguists the way they feel about their own personal family," Inghram said.
By late 2003, it had become clear that insurgents were hunting down Iraqis deemed to be cooperating with the U.S. occupation, including those working for Titan.
A 41-year-old Titan linguist, Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, was captured and beheaded last year by insurgents. A video of the execution was posted on the Internet in October.
In late March, two carloads of insurgents shot five Iraqi women as they traveled home in a car from their jobs on a U.S. base. All were killed, and Iraqi police said at least one was working as a translator.
Sellin and Mahler said they were particularly upset by the murders of a former Iraqi army general, Hakim al Jaboori, and his brother in late 2004. They were working as Titan linguists for a U.S. military intelligence battalion when they were gunned down while returning home.
"He was a supporter of a free Iraq," Mahler said. "He was killed to make a statement, and now his family is in hiding."
Inghram said Titan has tried to persuade linguists to leave their families and move onto military bases. But critics say that regardless of the security precautions Titan and other contractors take, some employees have stepped into positions that require military training and are too dangerous for civilians.
"It's taking people into roles that were never contemplated for civilians," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution Fellow who has done extensive research on the outsourcing of war.
A civilian on patrol
Drew Halldorson found himself playing such a role as an employee of SOS Interpreting, a Titan subcontractor. Halldorson started his tour in Iraq as a site manager but ended up with an U.S. Army combat unit patrolling downtown Mosul, one of Iraq's more dangerous cities.
Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and with an assault rifle strapped to his shoulder, Halldorson spent January kicking in doors, rounding up suspected insurgents and "shooting and being shot at" as he helped make the streets safer for the Jan. 31 election.
In just under a month, he completed 40 combat missions, he said.
"In January alone I fired between 300 to 500 bullets in self-defense," Halldorson said in April from his Maryland home.
It wasn't what Halldorson had in mind four months earlier when he went to Iraq to serve as a Kurdish-language specialist. In fact, the terms of the contract forbade Halldorson from even possessing a gun.
"What I was doing was in direct violation of Titan's contract with the Army, but everybody knew about it," he said.
Titan officials confirmed that Halldorson was stationed near Mosul, but largely refused to comment on his service with the 82nd Airborne. Inghram said he would be "surprised" if Halldorson did the things he said he did with Bravo Company.
But Capt. Leo Coddington, an 82nd Airborne company commander, confirmed Halldorson's story.
"He was with us from early January until the beginning of February. We were very fortunate to have him," Coddington said. "He was carrying a gun and had to engage for self-defense purposes."
Halldorson says he was fired by SOS in February for selling assault rifles and handguns to fellow contractors and other civilians in Iraq.
The Brookings Institution's Singer isn't surprised by Halldorson's story, but said it's something that should raise serious concerns among policy-makers.
"We are talking about a sea change not only in what people are doing, but what we are paying for," Singer said.
He added that Titan and other companies are working under contracts with the Army that were signed in the late 1990s. The language and terms of those contracts, which were written during a time now looked upon as a bygone era, don't fit the realities of today's Iraq, Singer said.
For example, some civilian interrogators at the U.S.-run prisons in Iraq were hired under a 1998 contract the Army awarded to Virginia-based CACI International for computer services.
Titan's contract goes back to 1999, when the Army awarded a $10 million contract with BTG, a small business in Fairfax, Va., to provide fewer than 30 linguists to the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait. Titan bought BTG two years later for roughly $174 million, as the Army's demand for interpreters skyrocketed during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
"It started as a contingency contract. We are talking about a handful of people," Inghram said. "Then, when 9/11 occurred, the Army had this contract in place, and they went with it."
Last week, the Army extended the contract until May, when it would be open to competition. Wall Street analysts view Titan as a leading contender to win a five-year renewal. They say it would be difficult for another company to supplant the San Diego company, which agreed in June to a $2 billion buyout offer from L-3 Communications.
Army spokeswoman Debrah Parker said contractors have always supported the Army on the battlefield, "but never as many as lately. That has put a new dynamic in the situation. The world has changed tremendously."
Titan's contract is governed by a multipage "statement of work" that is considered the operating manual for the company's employees in Iraq. The statement, drafted for the original contract in 1999, was geared toward an office setting, where linguists would work in shifts to translate documents.
'Overly vague' guidance
Inghram acknowledged that the statement of work "is overly vague" and "can be improved upon." Hill, the paymaster, said inconsistencies on contractor travel and other work requirements make the document "divorced from reality."
Hill added, "I wouldn't be here today if I had followed the statement of work by the letter."
When he first arrived in summer 2003, Hill was told that he would have to pay each linguist in person. So he would load as much as $700,000 in cash into the back of an ordinary Nissan SUV and drive throughout the bases and battlefields of Iraq, passing out monthly stipends.
Hill said he realized after experiencing some close calls with enemy fire that he was unnecessarily putting his life in danger.
"It was ridiculous, totally insane," said Hill, who eventually stopped making the paycheck runs.
The most contentious section in the statement of work has to do with gun possession. It states, "Contractor personnel are not authorized to carry or possess personal weapons to include, but not limited to, firearms and knives with a blade length in excess of 3 inches."
Yet a gun is among the first items many contractors seek when they arrive in Iraq, say the former Titan employees. Anyone whose job takes them off a protected military base needs to be armed, the contractors say.
Former employees say the company's unofficial policy about weapons was "don't ask, don't tell." Inghram disputed that characterization.
The guns usually come from Army units that have stockpiled weapons confiscated from insurgents. If one can't be obtained from an Army unit – and contractors say they're easy to get that way – Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles are readily available.
"You can buy an AK-47 for $40 in the streets," said Mazin al Nashi, a La Mesa man who worked for Titan as a linguist in Iraq from March to December 2003. "They sell guns as they sell eggs."
Inghram said the company has asked the Army to loosen its restrictions on firearms for some contractors but has faced resistance from Army commanders who worry about the many ramifications of arming civilians.
"This is going to be a topic at the war colleges for years to come," he said. "(It will) be very significant in the training of our future officer corps."
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