Vinnell corporation was founded by the late A. S. Vinnell in 1931 to pave roads in Los Angeles. Since then the company has handled a number of large domestic as well as government projects. The company was the major contractor for US military operations in Okinawa, overhauled Air Force planes in Guam in the early 1950s, and sent men and equipment onto the battlefields of the Korean War.
Now based in Fairfax, Virginia, the company has been controlled in the past through a web of interlocking ownership by a partnership that included James A. Baker III and Frank Carlucci, former U.S. secretaries of state and defense under presidents George Bush senior and Ronald Reagan respectively.
Perhaps the most important military contract Vinnell landed was in 1975 when the Pentagon helped the company win a bid to train the 75,000 strong Saudi Arabian National Guard, a military unit descended from the Bedouin warriors who helped the Saud clan impose control on the peninsula early in last century.
An article in Newsweek at the time described the company's first recruitment efforts with the aid of "a one-eyed former U.S. Army colonel named James D. Holland" in a cramped office in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra to put together "a ragtag army of Vietnam veterans for a paradoxical mission: to train Saudi Arabian troops to defend the very oil fields that Henry Kissinger recently warned the U.S. might one day have to invade."
"We are not mercenaries because we are not pulling triggers," a former U.S. Army officer told the magazine. "We train people to pull triggers." One of his colleagues wryly pointed out: "Maybe that makes us executive mercenaries."
Since 1994 the company has been paid $800 million for training and construction alone according to a Freedom of Information Act request conducted by U.S. News and World Report. In return Vinnell has constructed, run, staffed, and written doctrine for five military academies, seven shooting ranges, and a healthcare system, as well as training and equipping four mechanized brigades and five infantry brigades.
In 1997 Charles Hanley, a special correspondent for the Associated Press newswire, got a rare glimpse inside the Saudi operation where he described 300 American military veterans in the desert hills overlooking Riyadh with yellow "Vinnell Arabia" patches on their khaki-and-olive-drab uniforms training young Saudis in the operation of new General Motors light armored vehicles and other weaponry while supervising supply operations, operating a hospital and updating the Guard's data processing, among other functions.
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Pratap Chatterjee is an investigative journalist based in Berkeley, California. He traveled to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in January 2002 and to Incirlik, Turkey, in January 2003 to research this article.