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Hired Guns

Hired Guns

Hundreds of former New Zealand soldiers have gone on to lucrative careers as private contractors in foreign war zones, often experiencing deep trauma after they return home. What, if anything, should we do about it?

By Pete McKenzie

Illustrations by Daron Parton

In early 2004, six black SUVs bolted down the main road into Baghdad, weaving past other vehicles at a frenetic pace. Too slow and an insurgent watching from one of the ruined buildings lining their route could detonate an IED, or improvised explosive device.

Baghdad had fallen to American troops in April 2003, a year earlier. Operation Iraqi Freedom — the invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition — had birthed a destabilising insurgency throughout the country. Although the operation had moved into a “reconstruction phase”, Baghdad remained deeply unsafe. In March 2004, three suicide bombers positioned around al-Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad’s north had simultaneously detonated their vests, killing at least 58 worshippers and injuring more than 200 others. Military personnel operating in Baghdad were trained to treat anyone who approached them as a potential suicide bomber and to consider every building a potential insurgent hideaway.

Two Kiwis sat behind the SUVs’ tinted windows. They had arrived in Iraq just hours before. The convoy was rushing them from the airport to their accommodation, where they would start new jobs as private military contractors — what some would call mercenaries.

“[We] were heading down the main street. I can’t remember which street it was, one of the main streets into Baghdad City,” recalls one, who I will call Rawiri. The road was likely “Route Irish”, the hazardous 12-kilometre stretch between Baghdad International Airport and the semi-protected Green Zone in the central city. In 2005 the New York Times compared driving down Route Irish to “a form of Russian roulette”.

The three children began to scream. “I think some of them might have been shot as well, I’m not sure.”

Partway along their route, the convoy was fired on by insurgents in the surrounding buildings, armed with AK-47s. Even though the SUVs were heavily armoured, there was a risk of a “complex attack”, where small arms fire, belt-fed machine guns, IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades would combine to form what Rawiri calls “a death trap”.

Rawiri grins. “And it was then, I was sitting there thinking, ‘Man, what the hell are we doing here? Should have just stuck to Call of Duty.’”

But this was what Rawiri had wanted. He had dedicated much of his adult life to the New Zealand Army. After leaving school in the late 1980s to work as a dairy farmer, Rawiri joined the artillery. At 18, he was posted to 161 Battery, which shared Papakura Camp with the elite Special Air Service. “We were very competitive. In rugby, boxing. We did the military marathon in 1991, where we ran 42 kilometres carrying 20kgs, to break the Guiness [World Record].”

The first New Zealand combat unit to go to Vietnam, 161 Battery had a reputation as a high-performing fighting force. Within months, Rawiri was training to deploy to the first Gulf War. But the call never came: our contribution was limited to medical and logistical support. That decade, some soldiers deployed to smaller peacekeeping operations in countries like Bosnia; Rawiri went as part of New Zealand’s contribution to the international stabilisation effort after the Bosnian War.

Still, he felt like he hadn’t been tested in battle. One ANZAC day in the 1990s, Rawiri found himself standing with his medals between veterans of World Wars I and II. “I thought, ‘These guys had done the ultimate, and I haven’t done that.’” And so in 2004, when one of his friends asked him “Should we go to Iraq?” Rawiri didn’t have to think hard.

“I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. Let’s go and get tested, see if we’ve got what it takes to be a “warrior”’.”

He pauses. “We were very naive to think like that.” Rawiri is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers who have left New Zealand’s Defence Force for the world of private contracting. By the end of his four-and-a-half-year stint, two of his best friends and fellow contractors had been killed. Once he got back to New Zealand, a need for adrenalin led him to bushfires and car crashes. He withdrew from family and friends. He drank heavily. He showed all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With New Zealanders still taking jobs in ongoing conflicts like those in Yemen and Syria, or in hotspots like Tanzania and Sudan, and many others having returned from the boom days of the early 2000s, a conundrum unique to modern warfare has unfolded. These soldiers-for-hire have come home from other people’s wars — including wars New Zealand deliberately declined to support — with intense trauma. They report deep depression, ongoing anger, and an inability to rebuild or retain meaningful relationships. And unlike members of the armed services, they receive little, if any, assistance. With that comes a dilemma: what, if anything, should we do about it?

Buried in your head  are two almond-shaped masses of brain tissue: the amygdala. When you experience something disturbing, the amygdala releases a chemical signal which prompts fear. After being stimulated too many times or too severely, the amygdala may start sending fear signals at the slightest provocation, keeping people in a near-constant state of fight or flight.

This is scientists’ working theory of PTSD, a condition most commonly associated with survivors of conflict. Those with PTSD may be chronically on edge, unable to sleep, plagued by flashbacks and nightmares and angry with themselves or others. To stifle their emotional dysfunction sufferers may subconsciously block even positive emotions, leading them to distance themselves from loved ones. PTSD is often accompanied by other mental conditions like depression and substance abuse.

While research is scarce, one 2007 study of private military contractors at DynCorp, a leading security firm, found that 24 per cent showed signs of serious depression or PTSD. According to Out of the Shadows, a book about the health of private military contractors, surveys indicated approximately 25 per cent suffer from PTSD, 18 per cent from depression, and 47 per cent from alcohol abuse.

Mike Diamond worked for 15 years in Defence Force logistics before moving into private security work in Iraq. When I ask how many of his former colleagues suffer from PTSD, he is blunt. “I’d say 100 per cent. All the close [protection] guys I know have some sort of trauma . . . They’re not the same person that you were there with.”

The rate of mental ill-health among contractors may actually be higher than among regular soldiers, partly because contractors operate under different ethical standards.

There’s speculation that the rate of mental ill-health among contractors may actually be higher than among regular soldiers, in part because of the particular moral dilemmas they confront. As Rawiri puts it to me, as a contractor “you need to be prepared for situations where, as a soldier, [your choices] wouldn’t be acceptable and would be unethical”.

Rawiri pauses to confirm that his real name wouldn’t be used in this article, then describes one such choice which sticks in his mind.

It was a scorching Friday afternoon in Baghdad, and the roads were packed with Iraqis driving home from work in the central city. Rawiri’s convoy was waiting for scout vehicles to clear a nearby bridge so they could cross. The surrounding area was a mix of scrub-speckled parks and deserted, gleaming stadiums — the physical embodiments of Saddam Hussein’s egomaniacal plan to host an Olympics in Iraq.

Another team had been ambushed in the same location just a few days previously, and so, sitting in the lead vehicle, Rawiri was on edge. A ute began to cross through an adjacent carpark towards him. Watching it close to within 80 metres, he began to shout the Arabic word for “Stop”. The ute didn’t stop. Rawiri shone a laser to get the driver’s attention. It kept going. Rawiri glanced at the car’s shocks. If it was a suicide vehicle loaded with explosives, they would be low to the ground: they weren’t. The ute drove closer.

Rawiri fired a warning shot into the ute’s front grille. After a pause, he aimed at the windscreen and fired off another. Finally, with the ute still approaching, Rawiri adjusted his aim to the right — exactly where the driver’s head would be — and methodically squeezed off five bullets.

The ute stopped. The driver’s door swung open and out stumbled a bespectacled old man in a flowing robe. An Iraqi police officer ran over to help. Rawiri’s personal radio crackled with the news that the bridge was clear. A crowd of furious Iraqis was forming around the old man: it was time for the convoy to move.

As they lurched forwards, Rawiri only caught a few glimpses of the old man. But he remembers the man’s robe. “It was white. I remember it being white because I remember seeing the red from his blood on it.”

Back at their accommodation, Rawiri was approached by a burly South African who had been in the convoy’s rear and had a few extra moments to see what had happened. “It was a justified killing bro, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

That’s when Rawiri realised the old man was dead.

Rawiri spends a lot of time explaining his team’s standard operating procedures to me, trying to justify taking the shot. Eventually, he stops. “I had to take this risk: Do I shoot this guy, with the risk that it’s just an innocent old guy, or do I let him come up on me and find he had a smaller explosive in his vehicle, and next thing he’s killed me and the guys in my vehicle? I chose to remove the threat. That’s one of the things I have to live with.”

illustration of smoking gun with American money

Rustamiyah, on Baghdad’s southern outskirt, “was the color of dirt”, wrote David Finkel in The Good Soldiers. When the wind blew from the east, it reeked of raw sewage, and when it blew from the west, it smelled of burning trash. The bomb-speckled streets nearby had names like Route Pluto, Route Predators, and Dead Girl Road. A former academy for Iraqi Army officers, by 2005 Rustimayah had been repurposed into an American Forward Operating Base. And as a key hub of local troop movements, it was a constant target.

Rawiri arrived in Iraq just after four contractors employed by the contracting firm Blackwater were killed in the city of Fallujah. “They got caught in traffic, were dragged into the streets, mutilated, hung off a bridge and set on fire,” recalls Rawiri. The images of burning bodies strung across the Euphrates were horrific, but he thinks they had it coming. “They’d made a lot of mistakes — they advertised their movements the night before to some locals who spoke to the insurgents. They’d set themselves up to fail.” Blackwater would later gain global infamy in 2007, when its contractors used machine-guns, grenade launchers and a sniper rifle to slaughter 17 innocent Iraqis — including two children — in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

The Fallujah ambush prompted Blackwater to cancel its contract with ESS, a logistics company which provided cooks to American military bases in Iraq. (ESS also provides catering for military bases in New Zealand). The Blackwater contractors had been escorting an ESS delivery when they were killed. The company which employed Rawiri swooped in on the lucrative contract.

In 2004, a team of Rawiri’s fellow contractors were escorting an ESS delivery near Rustamiyah when their convoy was derailed by IEDs. The insurgents peppered the contractors with small-arms fire, determined to catch any who escaped the initial explosions. Rawiri was part of a nearby Quick Response Force charged with rescuing survivors from catastrophes like this.

With the firefight still raging, he moved up to the lead vehicle. Rawiri knew the driver had recently become a father. Now he “was slumped over the steering wheel”. The man in the passenger seat “had been sliced in half from the explosion and his side of the vehicle had caught fire . . . When I recovered his body I was just pulling out his legs. The rest had gone, had disappeared.”

In the back were two more of Rawiri’s fellow contractors. One had been shot in the back of the head while trying to exit the vehicle. “As we rolled in, his face was all gone. One of the other boys had gotten out of the vehicle with him. The bullet had penetrated the first guy’s head, gone out the back, and shot the other guy in the back in his body armour. His face and everything was all over [the survivor’s] back. We didn’t tell [the survivor] that when we dekitted him and took his gear off. We made sure he didn’t see that.”

IEDs were Rawiri’s biggest concern while on missions. Some militaries had electronic countermeasures to prevent nearby mobile phones or garage openers from remotely detonating IEDs; it was technology Rawiri’s company didn’t have access to.

Instead, contractors “ran the gauntlet”. “If it’s my turn to run the gauntlet, everyone in my vehicle would get out and into another vehicle, and I’d just drive full tilt, through chicanes, over a bridge, to the other side. If an IED goes off, then it’d just be me that got whacked. So we’d take turns.” This didn’t work for long. “The insurgents started to cotton on, so they’d wait until the second vehicle came across and then detonate for that one.”

With such crude tactics, the contractors’ casualty rate was high. In Rawiri’s first eight months, he thinks his team went through 24 large firefights and lost seven men; a casualty rate of almost 50 per cent for their 16-person team. The small amount of research on private military contractors indicates their casualty rate was higher than that for regular service-people: two academics at George Washington Law School estimated that contractors are between 1.8 and 4.5 times more likely to be killed than their uniformed colleagues.

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Among those killed was Teina Ngamata, one of Rawiri’s best friends and a contractor for a different company in Iraq. It was the same old thing, says Rawiri. “His vehicle got whacked by an IED in the middle of a gun battle. And he got trapped in there, but the boys reckon he was dead. He got killed there in the vehicle. The vehicle caught on fire, and all the grenades he had on him started going off.”

When I ask him how he grieved his friend’s death, Rawiri is matter-of-fact. “The same as all the boys. We all mourned. We did our karakias. We haka’d them out of the country.” And then he carried on with the job.

illustration of glasses with bullet holes.

It is impossible to determine the size of the private military industry, or New Zealand’s contribution to it, since the industry prides itself on secrecy. The Defence Force says it has done no research into the number of New Zealanders who have worked as contractors.

Kiwis are typically recruited through word of mouth: almost all the men I spoke to recalled a call from a friend offering a job. This has posed a significant challenge to our Defence Force. During the mid-2000s, the annual rate of personnel leaving the Army crept as high as 24 per cent, according to an unpublished masters dissertation by a former commander of the SAS, Jim Blackwell, which is cited in political scientist Maria Bargh’s book A Hidden Economy: Māori in the Privatised Military Industry. In order to reduce attrition, the SAS had to cut a deal with military contracting firms: they would provide references for soldiers who wanted one, so long as the firms didn’t actively recruit from them. The Defence Force attrition rate now sits at around 10 per cent — still a significant challenge.

Some data is available about the use of contractors by the American government, which appears to be the world’s largest consumer of private military services. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2003 and 2013 in Iraq and Afghanistan “contractors accounted for 50 per cent. or more of the total military force”. In 2019 alone, the US Department of Defense spent over USD$370 billion on contracting.

While the number of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan declined after a peak in 2007, recent American withdrawals have boosted demand for military contracting in both countries. Other areas have provided new opportunities. Conflicts in Ukraine and Yemen and civil unrest in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea have produced new markets for hired guns. According to the former contractors I spoke to, Kiwi colleagues still working in the industry are now concentrated in Africa and the Pacific. They provide security for gold mines and oil wells in places such as Indonesia and Tanzania.

Sean McFate, a Georgetown University academic who studies this area, has written that, “no one truly knows how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit market. All we know is that business is booming.”

Providing government-funded assistance to contractors could be interpreted as tacit approval for the work that they do.

And Kiwis are in high demand. According to Scotty Sheridan, a former section commander in the Army who spent 10 years contracting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, this popularity is driven by more than Kiwis’ solid grasp of soldier skills. “We’re really good at the hearts and minds stuff,” he says. “We get success through empathy, and understanding what’s going on at a local level.” It set Kiwis apart from the Americans, British and Canadians, who Sheridan says would often ignore or disrespect the locals they worked with.

As a result, during the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan Kiwis could command impressive salaries. (Pay has declined since, due to a surge of less skilled soldiers willing to accept lower wages). Rawiri says that as an Army sergeant he made about $38,000 a year; by the time he left Iraq, his employer was paying him about $210,000, direct into an offshore bank account.

Hundreds of Kiwis took up these extraordinary wages. In 2007, the New Zealand Herald reported that 2000 New Zealanders were working as contractors in Iraq alone. In Bargh’s book, she estimated that there was “an absolute minimum” of 200 to 300 Māori working in military contracting, with hundreds more non-Māori presumably also involved.

The private military industry’s growth in the 2000s sparked domestic concern. In 2003, then-Labour Foreign Minister Phil Goff introduced the Mercenary Activities (Prohibition) Bill. It banned recruiting, financing or working as a “mercenary” — which the Bill defined as someone taking part in hostilities in an armed conflict for private gain, without serving a national military and for compensation “substantially in excess” of that paid to the armed forces. The definition appears to cover many New Zealanders working as contractors, as then-New Zealand First MP Ron Mark observed (after a stint in the New Zealand Army, Mark later worked for the Sultanate of Oman’s military).

But the Act, which became law in 2004, has only been applied to what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has described as “so-called ‘true’ or traditional mercenaries: unaffiliated individuals (‘freelancers’) who are prepared to fight wars or overthrow governments or commit certain terrorist acts for money”. As of 2014, according to Bargh’s book, there had been no prosecutions under the Act, suggesting that “the new offences it created have not been actively pursued and the Act has had little impact at all”.

Rawiri came home in March 2009. With no formal qualifications, readjusting to civilian life was hard. He ended up mowing lawns in Auckland. But he felt “a bit stuck”, he says. “I wasn’t getting that adrenalin rush or achieving a better life.”

Six months after returning, on a sleepy afternoon in the semi-secluded Auckland suburb of Beach Haven, Rawiri was on his fifth and final job of the day, at “a typical suburban home”. To block out the cicadas’ summer crescendo and the lawnmower’s growl, Rawiri had stopped his ears with the same kind of hearing protection he used to wear on the shooting range or for a mission.

Slowly a low, rumbling whine crept through the foam plugs. It was a sound with which he was intimately familiar: a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft. “It sounded erotic,” laughs Rawiri. “It’s a unique sound.” For years, Rawiri had slept by Baghdad International Airport. The low rumble had been a constant presence, with tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians who needed constant resupplying. “You’d hear it bloody 24/7, even when I would go to bed at night in my hooch. You can hear them flying low over top of you coming into the airport to land. And then hearing the same sound, but now you’re back in New Zealand . . . That sound’s a trigger, y’know?”

The Hercules Rawiri heard was descending to land in nearby Whenuapai Airbase. As it roared overhead, Rawiri stopped mowing and sat in the middle of the lawn. “I would have sat there for a couple of hours,” he says, long after the Hercules’ whine had faded away. The sudden surge of memories was just too much. “As a soldier, that’s when I realised I’m not gonna make it on civvy street. I needed to be back in the military.”

So Rawiri rejoined the Army. Still, even ensconced in his old family, he found that he craved adrenalin. He signed up as a volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver, dousing bushfires and responding to roadside crashes. “It wasn’t like being in Iraq, but it was still a fix.”

He found that fix in alcohol too. “Eventually it hit me quite hard. I withdrew from everyone else. I was drinking quite heavily. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I had the simple but clear signs of post-traumatic stress.”

Many contractors would find that familiar. In a 2007 interview, the CEO of an American firm which provides psychiatric services to private contracting firms said, “I think the numbers [of contractors suffering mental ill-health are in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands. Many are going undiagnosed. These guys are fighting demons, and they don’t know how to cope.”

Most contractors were raised in an environment which valued silent stoicism and struggle to admit they are suffering. “A lot of the guys won’t come out and say it,” Rawiri says. “Once we’re on the piss, the boys start to open up about it.”

Even Rawiri, who is remarkably frank in our conversations, sometimes holds back when people ask about his experiences in Iraq. “Y’know, I’ll ask myself how long I’ve known someone before I open up. There’s a lot of things over there that I’ve never told my family. Some memories will stay there. They don’t belong in anyone else’s ears. It’s a burden I’ll carry myself.”

Scotty Sheridan, the former infantryman who spent a decade as a contractor, can see that burden in all the contractors he worked with. “Everyone is affected differently. Heavy drinking, lack of sleep, can’t hold a relationship down, divorces, break-ups. That happened to many of the guys.” I ask him how many of his former colleagues are happy now. “I’d say zero. There are none that would be happy, per se.”

For those willing to ask for help, there is another difficulty. The public health system may be unprepared or under-resourced to deal with the complex trauma they face, and the private health system is expensive. Many companies specifically deny responsibility for contractors’ health after their employment ends. Others stringently limit compensation.

That lack of support is partly why contractors are paid so well. But many, unused to the sudden influx of money, fritter it away overseas and have little left when they return. New Zealand-specific data is scarce, but according to a study of military contractors by the authors of Out of the Shadows, just 28 per cent of those with probable PTSD and 34 per cent with probable depression were receiving mental health treatment in the year prior to being surveyed.

“I have no regrets, even with having come home a broken man both physically and mentally.”

In New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) provides financial support to people dealing with physical and mental injury. After a contentious court case in 2016, ACC was forced to provide support to a New Zealand soldier who experienced ongoing trauma on his deployment and developed PTSD. But according to John Miller, one of the lawyers on that case and a former senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, it remains unclear whether that case means contractors also qualify for such aid. Contractors’ lengthy stints overseas, the fact that most are employed by international firms, and the ACC system’s aversion to providing cover for mental injury are all significant hurdles to them obtaining cover, says Miller. “If it’s PTSD, your heart sinks a bit, because your claim has to fit into a section which wasn’t really drafted for it.”

Beyond ACC, the Defence Force supports serving soldiers and Veterans’ Affairs helps former soldiers who deployed in a few specially designated conflicts. Contractors don’t qualify. Some former contractors use prior Defence Force service to get support: Rawiri hopes his deployment in Bosnia for the Army will qualify him for financial aid.

Practically, the New Zealand government might expect the companies involved — many highly profitable — to support contractors who incurred trauma while working for them. “I don’t see why Veterans Affairs would be responsible at all, or necessarily the government,” said Dr Anna Powles, a Massey University academic who researches the industry. “If the government starts providing support to the contractors, then that absolves the company itself, and they’ll be even less likely to adhere to international norms and regulations around the private security industry.”

More fundamentally, it could be interpreted as tacit approval for the work that contractors do. Some are clearly reckless or malicious when it comes to other people’s lives, such as the four Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisour Square massacre. Prior to being pardoned by President Donald Trump, they were convicted in American courts on manslaughter and murder charges. At sentencing, the United States Attorney’s office remarked that, “The sheer amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants’ criminal conduct on 16 September 2007 is staggering.”

Those who were in Iraq emphasise that most contractors are not Blackwater-esque criminals. It is not a crime to defend Filipino cooks moving to the frontline to prepare food for American troops, or escort Western diplomats, or provide security for Kurdish oil wells. But the companies that employ contractors are regularly accused of establishing operating procedures which are overly loose, omitting to train contractors in de-escalation techniques, or covering up potentially criminal activity. It is difficult not to reflect on how those companies have contributed to the loss of civilian life in war zones where they operate with little or no accountability. And their work is also becoming more common. With many governments reluctant to jeopardise soldiers’ lives and keen to cut costs, contractors are filling the gap.

When I first met Rawiri, before I knew his history, he idly mentioned that he’d worked overseas. I asked if he had any good stories, prompting him to pause and consider me for a moment. Then he told me about an acquaintance of his he called Fingers.

Fingers had been sitting in a convoy moving through the streets of Baghdad. As usual, the Iraqis around them were keeping a safe distance from the fortified SUVs. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Fingers saw a vehicle break from the traffic. In it was a young Iraqi man with three small children in the backseat: what looked like a father driving his kids to school.

But Fingers was skeptical. According to Rawiri, at that time insurgents would seek out street kids and pay them to get in their cars. “The children would be like, ‘Wow, this is a lot of money.’ Unbeknownst to them, [the man] would be a suicide bomber and he would use these kids as cover,” says Rawiri. “And then he’d drive the vehicle into our vehicles and detonate.” A CNN report from 2007 quotes a US general reporting the same practice.

Fingers leaned over and shouted a warning at the approaching car. It didn’t stop. He leaned his rifle out the window and fired some warning shots. And when that didn’t work, says Rawiri, “Fingers killed the guy.” The three children began to scream. “I think some of them might have been shot as well, I’m not sure.”

Later, once Rawiri trusts me, he explains that he was with Fingers in the car that day and watched the situation unfold. “We don’t know if it was a father and sons, or an insurgent and kids,” he says. “But it is what it is.” Lost for words, I lamely murmur that it’s “one hell of a war story”. “Yeah,” he replies. “It’s one I wish I didn’t have.” He holds my gaze for a moment, then nods and looks away.

After hearing his stories, I ask Rawiri whether he regrets his decision to go to Iraq. To my surprise, he says he doesn’t. “I was very naïve to have wanted to go for the reason to be tested,” he admits. “[But] I have no regrets, even with having come home a broken man both physically and mentally.”

“We formed a brotherhood — a connection that is only formed between a group of warriors who have been to the edge of life and back together, time and time again. I lost a lot of close friends over there, and men whom I still weep for today when memories are triggered.” But he says, “War is the ultimate game. There’s nothing out there that comes close to it. Would I do it again? I wouldn’t miss it for quits.”

Pete McKenzie is a freelance writer and law student based in Wellington.

This story appeared in the May 2021 issue of North & South.