April 21, 2005. Seven Blackwater contractors die today. This is the day I lose all compassion for Iraq. The day I realize I’m not a soldier in war. I’m a single-serve Starbucks coffee cup, useful for a time and easily discarded with no second thought given to it. I am a soldier for hire, a soldier of fortune, a mercenary. I’m fine with that.
The footage is on repeat on CNN. Six of my Blackwater brethren contractors are on the helicopter going to Tikrit. The news shows the helicopter falling to the ground as it burns. A caption at the bottom of the screen states, “Seven Blackwater security contractors killed in Iraq.” My family must be freaking out watching the morning news cycle at home. I send a quick email to eight of them stating I am alive before I am summoned for a meeting.
I drop my Glock 9mm in my Safariland drop-leg holster and walk to the common area of our 500-man camp located outside the U.S. Embassy in the infamous Green Zone of Baghdad. It’s hot and I feel sweat roll down my back as I approach a large sand pile. It’s silent, which is odd. Blackwater USA is usually filled with former special operations members — alpha males — telling stories of their exploits. Not today. Today we wait in silence.
The site leader walks toward the crowd and looks around for a place to speak. He wears a tan polo shirt with the distinctive Blackwater-bear-paw-surrounded-by-a-rifle-sight logo. He has on green 5.11 pants with his pistol strapped to his right hip. We wait. He walks to a pile of sand, used to fill the sandbags that are stacked around housing areas with the hope of shielding us from mortars and rockets that are launched in the Green Zone regularly. The crowd turns toward him.
“We had seven of our brothers die today,” the leader says. “I’m going to give you the names in a minute.”
My heart sinks. I know the names of the six contractors who died on the helicopter, but we had an additional brother die on a run from Ramadi. This is a wild card. My buddy MJ, my roommate back in the United States, the person who talked me into becoming a contractor, is in Ramadi.
“First, no one is to post anything on the internet,” he says. “No emails giving out these names. I trust you and I’m going to treat you like men. These are your brothers and you deserve to know.”
Tell me names. I need names. Just not MJ’s.
“If any of their families finds out before we can contact them through official channels,” he says, “I’m going to find out who did it and beat the hell out of you. Then you’ll be fired. Do you understand?”
We nod as he reads the names. So slowly. Not MJ. Please not MJ. Once he’s done, I take a huge breath. No MJ. Thank God. I say a prayer for the families as we all stand in stunned silence. This hurts. This hurts bad. The site leader tells us we are on 48 hours of stand-down, so there will be no missions for the next two days.
Within hours, there’s footage from the perspective of the terrorist who shot it down. He’s standing out of view as another filthy terrorist yells “Allah Akbar.” I see the rocket-propelled grenade fly through the air and connect with the helicopter. It feels like I’m watching in real time. Now it’s personal.
We gather in my friend George’s room and watch a just-released video of the crash site on one of those graphic gore websites. One of the pilots survived. He begs for his life as someone shoots him with an AK-47. The video turns to the charred bodies of our friends. We attempt to decipher who is who. We watch it on repeat. This is us coping. We desensitize ourselves to carnage to distance our emotions from the nature of the job. We joke. It’s impressive. We all feel the pain but refuse to acknowledge it.
We begin to drink heavily. Patches of contractors throughout the camp congregate to tell stories of the dead. I knew two of them but not as well as others did. I walk to a couple of areas, say very little, and listen to funny stories about the deceased. Each story begins with laughing and ultimately ends with the entire group crying. It’s gut-wrenching. Alcohol dulls the pain.
I return to my room to check my email. I have one reply to my earlier email telling my family I was alive. It reads: We’re doing good here too! It feels like a slap to the face. No one worried that I was one of the dead. I realize no one at home gives a shit as I lie in bed unable to sleep.
The next day we walk to the nondenominational U.S. Embassy chapel. It’s a double-wide trailer with plastic sheeting for walls. There is an elevated platform and a podium where a pastor can stand and give a jeremiad based on the religious service of the day. My body attempts to sweat out the toxins consumed the night prior. I’m hungover. I take a seat next to George, who is on the Quick Response Force team with me. The pastor leads us in singing “Amazing Grace,” and a man dressed in a suit walks to the podium. Who brings a suit to a combat zone?
He’s a State Department representative. He speaks in platitudes about how important this mission is and how we are integral to both the State Department and the effort to rebuild Iraq. The people of Iraq are indebted to us. He speaks glowingly of the dead. I doubt he ever met them. I doubt he could name one if he weren’t reading off a folded pamphlet showing their names and pictures. I listen to his drivel and feel disdain for him, for the mission, and for the people of Iraq.
As we walk out, I speak with my buddy George.
“Screw that guy,” George says. “I’m not here for his mission.”
“Agree,” I say.
“Promise me if I die,” George says, “you won’t let that moron talk about how courageous I was. I’m not here for this mission. Screw these people. I’m here for me. For the money.”
“Agree,” I say. “Same for me.”
A few days after the helicopter was downed, we’re on the road again. I’m the gunner behind the driver in the lead Hummer. We’re in traffic and making our way over a bridge in north Baghdad near Sadr City. My head’s out the window with my rifle 18 inches from the head of a middle-aged lady in the passenger seat of a car. I’m looking forward when shots ring out. They’re ours. Fully automatic M240B. I think nothing of it until the lady screams like she’s gut shot. She jumps on the lap of the driver. The look in her eyes is abject terror.
Good. I hope she’s scarred for life. I take a moment to feel bad. She’s scared. Nah. My give-a-damn’s busted. Wait. I need to feel bad about this. At least a little bad. Nope. These people don’t care about their country. I don’t either.
This is my life. I have no ethical obligation to the people of Iraq, this war, this quagmire we created. If I die over here, there will be no military honors given to me. I’m on my own. I’m a number on a government contract. A nearly empty single-serve coffee cup ready to be discarded and sent to a landfill. My life will be forgotten 48 hours after it ends in a fiery blaze. I’m here for me. I’m here for the money. I’m a mercenary and I’m fine with that.