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Longtime CQ readers will remember my friend Mike the Contractor, who spent a long time in Iraq both in the Seals and as a contractor. I've published some of Mike's letters in the past, especially those to his young sons in explaining the war on terror. Today Mike sends this message to his friends and family, reminding us of the role that his contractor friends continue to play in protecting Americans and Iraqis in the most dangerous areas. Mike will return to Iraq in the near future to continue this work himself.
On this Memorial Day, we honor the military men and women who have been killed in action while defending our freedoms. After seeing fallen military brethren that I have served with receive official honors and family compensation, I thought it would be appropriate to honor some other comrades-in-arms, which are my contractor brothers who also paid the ultimate price over the last couple years.
This e-mail will go out to a couple hundred military friends as well as civilians. Many of you already know very intimately what armed contractors do and also what it is to lose someone who has gone into the fray with you.
For those who don't, there are two (2) main kinds of contractors in war zones.
The kind that you have frequently seen on TV pitifully held hostage and beheaded on video are the un-armed kind. They generally work for companies like KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary) or construction or oil companies and are the completely innocent people who are doing the major rebuilding and support work in Iraq. Their slayings are particularly heinous at all levels including the Islamic Qur'an that states "If you kill someone who is not himself a killer, it is as if you have killed all of mankind."
The other kind of contractor is the kind that I was and served with. We are fully armed with American as well as foreign weapons. We work for government contracted security companies and/or specialized medical support companies that primarily hire former special operations personnel. Many of the men I worked with were on leave of absence from a Special Forces unit or like in my case a Reserve Navy SEAL unit. There is virtually no chance that any of us could ever be taken alive and to my knowledge, none of us have.
But no matter how well you plan or train, you can certainly die a violent death like anyone else. In fact as I look back over my 334 days in Iraq, I realize that there are well over a dozen contractors who I knew who died there. Scottie Helvenston, who was slain in Fallujah and hung on a bridge on March 31, 2004 is probably the only one with any public name recognition. American names like Roy Buckmaster and foreign names like Cristoph Kazka will only be remembered by their eternal friends and relatives and the Lord.
I will pick 2 men to profile here whom I worked with closely and who were killed a few short weeks after I returned home to the privileged surrealistic world we call America. I will state their names as they were released to the press but I will leave out the name of the agencies they worked for.
Todd Engstrom and Dave Randolph were not just shooters, they were Team Leaders and Program Managers for two different security companies operating at the same time out of a forward operating base near Fallujah. Because I was a medic, I was honored to work for and with both of them in the last months of a contract to secure and dispose of explosive ordnance. But it really didn't matter who you worked for at this place, affectionately called "the Rock," because we all felt like brothers in the same family and Todd and Dave made that happen. They were friends to all of us and obviously the closest of friends to each other.
Todd was qualified to teach the Sate Department Alpha & Bravo course, so he made sure that everyone on site had ample opportunity to qualify on his course even if they worked for a different company. Todd's company set up combat shooting courses all the time even though temperatures went over 130 in the summer and their operational work schedule was oppressive. I remember one week where the course was a 12 station AK-47 shoot-on-the-move timed evolution. We were issued only Iraqi ammunition to shoot because it misfired so frequently (we always loaded good American or Russian ammo in our operational magazines) and required you to clear your weapon several times on the course. Guys from Todd's company challenged guys from Dave's company to compete against them. Dave showed up on the last day and set the course record on his first run.
Todd and Dave were just about the best leaders I have ever seen. You may have heard instructors or leaders say, "I will never ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself." Todd and Dave never said words like that (Dave rarely said anything without an F word in it). They didn't have to. They were always right there with you doing it. And although they were both strong enthusiastic leaders, they were not reckless.
Whether it came to patrolling the outer regions of the FOB at night, clearing areas strewn with unexploded ordnance, or going on convoys outside the wire, both of them had only one thing in mind - bringing back their men alive. As such they made sure that everyone knew every job. Everyone had their own maps and knew all of the main routes as well as escape and evasion routes. Everyone had the communications plan, medevac plan, intelligence summaries, all of it. Because Todd and Dave literally led from the front, they made sure that they could be replaced by anyone of us if disaster struck.
While I was processing back into the U.S. at Fort Bliss Texas in October of 2004 I was notified of the death of Todd Engstrom who was in the lead vehicle when an improvised explosive device was detonated north of a place called Taji.
The following month, while I was home around Thanksgiving with my family, David Randolph was killed by an RPG that exploded into his lead vehicle on a convoy between Fallujah and Baghdad. Next to him was another man I worked with who I will call Avin. Although Avin was not his real name, it is close enough for those who know to remember. Avin's brother is another SF contractor that I know and greatly respect. He was in country at the time and flew home with the remains of Avin and is now back in Iraq, which is why I leave his family names out of this.
In each tragedy, the remaining contractors instantly unleashed 'violence of action' to vanquish the enemy, cross-loaded their guntrucks with the bodies of their fallen leaders and friends and got out of the kill zone.
American contractors get paid OK on a daily basis, once we are actually working in the war zone. However, when a contractor is killed in action, there is no fanfare, no pension for the family, not much in the way of life insurance.
A memorial fund has been set up for the families of Todd Engstrom and David Randolph and Avin by their respective company. Dave & Avin have surviving children.[I will post the website for this as soon as I have it -- CE]
"No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
Coalition means partnership. This Memorial Day, please know that the Coalition Forces of Iraq who paid the ultimate price, be they men or women; military, government or civilian; American, Iraqi, British or more than 40 other nationalities, included all who love freedom as their partners and friends.
Michelle Malkin has an excellent roundup of other Memorial Day tributes.Sphere It View blog reactions
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» Memorial Day Round Up from The Political Teen
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