It was mid December. Christmas decorations sparkled annoyingly in every shop window and on every street corner. Stupid looking Santas stood in shopping malls and on high streets ringing their irritating bells demanding money for some good cause or other, probably pocketing half of it themselves and spending the rest in the pub at the end of their shift.
People raced around frantically looking morose and stressed, worried that they wouldn’t do all their shopping on time or that the gift they bought their uncle’s cousin’s first nephew’s fucking sister wasn’t expensive enough. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas, really. I love waking up Christmas morning next to my gorgeous wife and presenting her with a gift I have tried – although admittedly not always successfully – to think carefully about buying. I love the Christmas morning shag and a hearty English breakfast – although not always in that order. And I do love vegging out in front of the TV after an excessive Christmas dinner, trying unsuccessfully to keep my eyes open but never quite managing it. I just hate all the crap that goes with Christmas and the obscene commerciality of it all. It drives me mad and every Christmas since leaving the Legion I have vowed to escape to somewhere better, sunnier and infinitely more exciting. But I didn’t really expect to be going to bloody Iraq again!
After my first stint in the hell-hole of the universe I was told many times, by many people that one tour will never be enough. Like a virus, the bug of war wiggles its wretched way into the soul of a true soldier and embeds itself for all eternity, or at least until the nagging wife really does pack her bags and leaves. Even then I have met many soldiers who have been through marriages and failed relationships just to get back onto the front line, listening to the sweet sound of bullets whizzing by your head and the thud and mayhem of the mortar shell. After the first spell in the ‘sandpit’ I half-heartily said I wouldn’t be going back, one tour, one experience was enough but I think deep inside I knew I would. Just one more trip and it would help with the bills and go towards a nice car, it might even pay a bit of the mortgage off as well.
I am a former French Foreign Legion soldier or a Legionnaire as we are usually more affectionately called. For some reason I didn’t fancy joining the
British Army and joined the Legion in 1992 when I was just 18 years old – young, incredibly foolish and most definitely off my tiny trolley. One evening, while getting high on grass and drunk on cheap Tesco larger, I had watched a fascinating documentary on the National Geographic Channel about the French Foreign Legion and decided there and then that a Legionnaire’s life was definitely the life for me.
Surprisingly I thought the same the very next day after a blinding hangover and clearing up my vomit stained carpet. And the day after I still wanted to join, and as days turned into weeks and weeks into months I made my plans to escape this mindless teenage world of grass, cheap beer and puke and do something constructive with my life. And one day I just woke up, packed my bags and headed to Marseilles.
After the initial basic training and tests I then trained to be a medic, as that almost guaranteed a posting to some god-forsaken hell-hole where the action really was. Somalia was just kicking off at that time and I knew they wanted as many medics as they could muster, so I was first in the queue. If you finish high in the rankings you get to choose which regiment you go to, and if you finish low you go wherever you are sent! I finished 12th out of 65, which I was surprised with. I chose to go to the 13th DBLE (Demi- Brigade de la Legion Etrangere) based in Djibouti on the Somalia border. It was a fucking crazy hell-hole. I was in Djibouti for just three weeks before we were sent into Somalia and I ended up doing two tours there altogether – out of my two years in Djibouti I spent nearly 18 months in Somalia. There were bad bits, of course, and war had a huge impact on me mentally as I witnessed a lot of really bad things when I was still very young.
Africa was, and still is, fucked – life there is worth shit. Also, at that age, having to learn a foreign language and being away from family and friends was also sometimes very hard and losing friends in accidents or incidents also had a profound affect on me.
As well as the action there were a few other reasons I chose Djibouti – the sunshine and the higher wages! I served five years in the Legion altogether, and, ten years later, still have immense pride on what I have achieved personally and what the Legion achieved as a unit. We did some good work in Somalia, we delivered tons of food, managed a massive vaccination campaign and escorted and secured a large number of medical convoys throughout the region and into some of the worst places in the world.
I certainly missed the Legion when I left. Five years was enough, but for a few years after I left, I pined to see some action again and was chomping at the bit to feel the adrenalin and smell the smell of war. It is an experience unlike no other, gruesome yet compulsive, exhausting yet exhilarating, exciting yet fucking scary.
I first decided I wanted to go to Iraq when the war ended and reconstructing of the country began, I knew then that private security would be big business as many of the major security providers were already in discussions with both the British and American governments with regards to tendering for security contracts. Most of the biggest private security companies are run by high-ranking exmilitary officers who had all the contacts to be able to secure the ripest contracts and discreet nods were already being given to the likes of Olive, CRG, Armorgroup etc. I had just started Close Protection training and had attended a three-day introduction course. From there I went to Iceland for three-weeks of intensive training and then back to Iceland once more on an instructor’s course.
It was while on the initial three day course that I decided to qualify and go to Iraq. I was given a list of contractors and a friend called Craig Hales, who was also on the course, heard that a company called Hart Security had just secured a major contract plus they were a lot smaller than the other major players setting up in Iraq and therefore probably a lot better to work for. Hart was a fairly new company, originally founded in 1999 by Richard Westbury who before, was the Chief Executive of Defence Systems, so they seemed to have a good commercial manager. I sent off my application and was called down to London a week later for an interview. I thought the interview went well, and the fact I was a Legionnaire seemed to help, 95 per cent of their staff, they said, were ex military or ex Special Forces.
I was expecting to hear back from them pretty quickly, but days turned into weeks and then a month and then six weeks and then suddenly, early one morning and almost exactly six weeks after my initial interview, the telephone rang. It was just past nine am, I had had a late night and was still half asleep and initially thought about letting it ring, but curiosity took hold and I sleepily picked up the receiver. Did I still want a job? Fuck yes, I almost shouted, and was told to be at Heathrow airport in 48 hours. The first contract was for 10 weeks.
After returning home I decided to go out one more time as Hart had called – they had one of the most important, and probably the most dangerous contracts in post-war Iraq and would I be interested? Another Fuck yes! Again I was given 48 hours notice, and had to pick up my tickets to Kuwait from the Emirates Desk. I have to say my wife was not pleased, it was Christmas after all and a time for family and friends and log fires and jingle bells , and not of scrambling frantically through the sand being chased by a deranged fanatical Iraqi believing their God would welcome him with open arms if he blew the arms and legs off a British non-believer. Of course Iraq was not really like that – we never once scrambled through the sand.
After collecting my tickets, checking in and making my way through customs I met up with a few other guys also on their way out into the field – it was good not to sit alone thinking of the missus waiting for me back at home and the heat and dust and shit to come. Like me, most of the guys had been out before so we had a lot to talk about.
Just before we boarded I called my wife. She didn’t answer, maybe she was on the toilet or doing her hair or maybe she just didn’t want to answer, but I left a short, cheerful message telling her I love her and that I would be back soon and please don’t worry, everything will be fine – as if that would make a difference – but for me this was much better than actually speaking to her, I was never any good at saying goodbyes.
After what seemed a fairly quick six hour flight we arrived and we were met at the other side by a Hart representative holding up a big placard that said Hart. Once we had all gathered together and checked off his list we were ushered to a waiting minibus. Leaving the airport terminal and chilly England into the searing, oppressive heat of the Middle East is a complete shock. It is hard to imagine a wall of heat, but that is exactly what it is like, like being slammed up against an invisible brick. Immediately you start to sweat. I was used to the feeling as had already been out to Iraq, plus living and working in hot climes with the Legion, but for the newcomers it was a visible shock.
Thankfully the mini bus was air-conditioned and we drove through the centre to a rented safe house where we were to spend the night before going into Iraq the following morning. Also, most of us hadn’t yet signed a contract for this trip as recruitment was rushed and numbers needed for the job were high – nor did we know anything about the job, we just all knew it was going to be fucking dangerous. I signed a nine week contract, visas and permits were sorted, insurance forms signed, waiver forms signed, and the rest of the administration associated with sending westerners into a war zone were hastily completed.
While this was all being sorted buy the guy that had picked us up from the airport and a couple of his administrative assistants, we were allowed to go into town for an evening stroll and a bit of shopping. I spent most of the money I had that evening, just in case something happened to me and I ended up coming home in a body-bag and coffin.
That night was restless, it was hard to sleep as thoughts crept back from my previous tour, remembering the few contacts situations, the first round slamming into the side of our vehicle, the adrenalin rush as we reversed our vehicles out of the contact zone and sprayed the building where we thought the contact had come from. Was I really going back . . . damn right I was!
The next day we were taken in a convoy to the Iraqi border where we passed quickly through a Kuwaiti check point then on to an American check point. The Americans seemed to take forever to check our documents and papers. They were a great bunch of lads – the Americans on that point – but were as paranoid as fuck, even though no Iraqis yet have blown themselves up on the Iraq / Kuwait border. I bet the guys were as happy as could be when they were told they would be on that post as opposed to working the streets in the centre of Baghdad. After passing both check points we were in Iraq and were met by two more Hart close protection teams.
We were each handed an AK-47 and two magazines, which we all hastily checked over. The nerves of the previous evening had all but disappeared and, with the AK in my hand I felt back at home. My wife always said that I had a stupid grin on my face whenever I had my weapon in my hand, and I knew what she meant, it felt good. Weapons are compulsive and addictive, and absolutely necessary in a place like Iraq, as a westerner without a weapon you simply would not survive.
Once we had checked and signed for our weapons we were driven to the Hart compound inside Basrah airport complex, where the British Forces were based. Basrah airport is the second largest airport in Iraq and located south of the city of Basrah. On my first tour Hart originally based themselves and operated from at a large villa in the city itself, but due to the elevated risk, coupled with the amount of times they were getting mortared, they wisely decided it was a lot more logical, and infinitely safer, to mover into the airport complex and nearer to the British Army.
We had a few minutes to arrange ourselves and settle into our dorms when we were all then mustered to the courtyard. There was over 90 personnel altogether, 20 or so in the team that had just come in from Kuwait with me and others that had arrived over the previous 48 hours. We were the last of the batch which was why we were mustered so quickly after we arrived, apparently everyone was waiting for the last batch of fresh meat from the UK.
Because of an extremely important high risk contract Hart had just won, they embarked on a massive recruitment drive, signing up almost anyone with a security or related background. Included in many of the applications were lots of doormen from the UK. I have worked the clubs and pubs myself on and off for many years, so I know the job well and I can usually spot a doorman a mile away and standing outside in the searing 40 degree heat it was easy to spot the nightclub bouncers amongst the many soldiers and ex-forces. I remembered fondly the story Robin once told me during that three-day course I attended. He worked in Bosnia during the conflict and secured a contract to pick up the mercenaries from Zargeb airport and take them to near the front line to the Hrvatska Vojska (Croatian Army) camp, where they would be put through their paces before being sent into action. They were not really mercenaries as they didn’t get paid – the Croatian Army always fervently maintained they never employed mercenaries during that particular conflict – but were unpaid volunteers, but there were many foreign unpaid volunteers from all over the UK. Robin told me that those full of bravado, boasting and bragging and doing their best to look hard would literally shit themselves at the first sound of the mortar shell or the first live round whizzing past their ears. They would literally crap their pants and it seemed to me that a few of the guys that did look very much like nightclub doormen standing amongst the rest of us might have been doing the same thing.
The Project Manager Sam stood on a small podium in front of us all and told us that some of the team would be working in Basrah, while the rest would be sent to central Baghdad on an extremely high-risk operation. At this point and before we had been allocated our assignment, to my utter amazement about six of the guys that looked as though their pants were a lot stickier than they had been a few minutes previously, put up their hands and said they had changed there minds and felt they didn’t have what it took to go to Baghdad, and could they stay in Basrah . . . . please. What a bunch of utter cunts.
The rest of the team almost collapsed with laughter. Sam screamed at them, telling them to fuck off and within the hour they were back on the bus towards
the border where they were left to make their own way back home. There was no room for people who didn’t have the bottle for the job and for the life of me I could not understand how some cunt could come so far and then lose there bottle at the last minute; surely they knew what they were here for? It is virtual bravado, being a big man in a small pond back home somehow makes some people believe they could be a big man in a fucking huge pond somewhere else but the reality is very different.
They are only brave in their small insignificant world of their own nightclub door, anywhere else they are cowards and cunts. The sad fact is that I have heard that some of those wankers that were sent home actually went on to tell other people that they served in Iraq in private security!
Sam explained to the rest us that weren’t packing our bags and changing our trousers back in the dorm, that the job in Baghdad was far more dangerous than any other job the company had taken on, and only those who were completely right for the assignment would be asked to go. As he said I smiled to myself as I thought that the cunts that didn’t want to go in the first place probably would not have been chosen anyway.
Sam asked for volunteers and I was probably the first to put my hand up. I couldn’t wait – I didn’t come all the way to Iraq not to see some real action and not to get involved in something risky and dangerous. There were only a handful of us that had been with Hart before and as Sam counted the hands he recognised me from my last tour. ‘This is your second time out with Hart, isn’t it?’ he asked.
‘Yes sir’ I replied casually in army mode. He told me as this was my second time with the company I didn’t have to go on that particular mission, there were other less dangerous jobs he could assign me to.
‘But I want this job sir’ came my swift reply. He nodded his acceptance and the job was mine.
Because, having been in the French Foreign Legion, I was bi-lingual I was put into a half English / half French a team where astonishingly there were even a couple of guys that I had served with in the Legion a few years ago.
The next day we were split into two groups consisting of four or five teams each. The first group were to drive up to Baghdad in convoy with all our equipment, baggage etc while the rest of us were sent to Baghdad by helicopter. I really didn’t fancy going all that way in convoy, it was a long, arduous and uncomfortable journey and was therefore really pleased when my name was called for the team going up by helicopter.
We regrouped at Baghdad airport that same evening and were given the exact details of the task. I must be honest that it did come as a bit of a shock once I realised just how high profile the job was.
Each team consisted of eight ‘‘internationals’’ – which was us – and 16 ‘‘nationals’’ which were Iraqi guards / security teams who were employed by Hart. The vehicles for the assignment were to be totally standard local cars with local plates; no armour or markings or anything out of the ordinary. At first I was horrified but it proved to be a stroke of good thinking as throughout the assignment we could travel freely around the town and on the motorways
without anyone giving us so much as a second glance, unlike the American security companies such as Blackwater, who were using huge white Ford Pickups that stood out a mile and made wonderfully massive targets. Typical Americans, we thought as we heard of another white pickup coming under fire, whereas we never once had someone even look our way, let alone fire a gun at us.
We were given a location of a warehouse in the centre of the city where each team would be holed up. Our job was to drive from the warehouse to the airport, two to three times a day and every time we arrived at the airport we would form up a new convoy with six to seven 40ft trailers containing portable voting stations, ballot boxes and all necessary equipment and materials for setting up polling stations for the new government elections that were soon to be held. We were then to escort the convoys back to the warehouses for secure storage until the elections were ready to be held.
With the political mayhem and social turmoil the country of Iraq was in, these convoys made bigger and much more important targets than the American soldiers patrolling the streets.
We were taken in convoy to the warehouse. To our complete horror, the warehouse were not only in the middle of Baghdad but were in constant daily use – they were used for storing wheat, sugar, oil and other foodstuffs with trucks and lorries coming and going, delivering and collecting, all day, every day. In any one day, we were told that there could be anything up to 200 trucks and possibly up to 1000 workers coming and going. It was a complete and utter fucking nightmare.
Half the international CP team would go backwards and forwards to the airport with all of the Iraqi the nationals leaving just four of us guarding the warehouse and equipment until the team returned. We had control of about 1/3 of the warehouse; the rest of the premises were in constant daily use.
As we settled in and surveyed our temporary new home, the Americans turned up with a two or three heavy trailers containing a concrete blocks and numerous giant sandbags in order to try and form some kind of last line of defence should we come under heavy and sustained attack.
The team spent about a week going backwards and forwards to the airport escorting convoys of ballot boxes and polling stations and once all the materials and equipment had been collected, we spent a further week just sitting looking after them before the Iraqi national guard turned up with the election committee officials to organise, separate and despatch the stuff out to construct and create polling stations around the country for the national elections.
After the designated couple of days of elections, all the votes were then brought back to us at the warehouse for us to guard until then were ready to take them back to the airport for counting. Things heated up for us once we had the votes in our dirty, grubby little hands. We all felt like we were protecting Fort Knox and then some, we had the future of the country under our noses, and it seemed everyone throughout Iraq knew – especially the fanatics and extremists. As we patrolled the dim exterior of the warehouse, outside was like bonfire night on steroids, with an almost constant sound of gunfire. The nights were worse; the bastard Iraqis just would not let us get a minute’s sleep as the heavens was filled with the thuds and tremors of an almost constant barrage of mortar shells which felt as though they were being aimed directly at our tired little heads.
Life in the warehouse was complete shit. It was a big unit divided into three sections; my team had the third section furthest from the main gate. Because the warehouse was in daily use, we had to quickly build a makeshift defence barrier between us and the rest of the yard as it had lorries coming and going, loading and unloading, and hundreds of fucking workers walking around who were supposed to be controlled and guarded by the local Iraqi guards based on the main gate – but these Iraqi guards were about as useful as a chocolate coffee mug. We also had to man the corridor area leading to our part of the warehouse and make sure no one wandered, accidentally or otherwise, into to our area. We were instructed to shoot anyone who even remotely looked like a threat – the consequences of destroying even a small part of the material we were guarding were immensely grave, both politically and socially. To loose votes from the first so called Iraqi democratic voting system could bring the civil war in Iraq to even greater heights.
The depot was about 200ft by 75ft and had previously been used to store sugar. There was sugar all over the floor and during the night in the pitch black between the volleys of mortars and the near constant sound of gunfire, the only noises you could hear – apart from the occasional snores of the Team Leader – was the steady scurrying of rats below our beds. We needed the warehouse to be in blackout all night as we didn’t want to highlight our positions within the unit.
The first night we made makeshift beds by laying a couple of wooden pallets together on the floor with our sleeping bags on top. After that first uncomfortable night trying to kip on a wooden pallet with gunfire and mortars and fat rats scuttling all around us, we were supplied with some slightly more comfortable US camp-beds.
Our Kitchen area was in the same room and was a simple gas stove balanced on a pile of pallets, our dining table was a piece of wood on . . . guess what?…yep, a fucking pile of pallets. I am sure that I even shagged a pallet in my dream one night.
The only thing we couldn’t do with pallets was eat them, and so at the start of our assignment we were given a few boxes of U.S army rations which kept us going, and now and then, when the US Army were passing on patrol, they popped in with an occasional warm lunch. But this wasn’t that often as it was not that safe for the US Army to patrol in our area.
We passed our time by sitting on the roof of the warehouse counting the clouds of smoke from explosions around the city or by seeing if we could identify where shooting was coming from. We also tried sleeping and played a lot of chess. There were a couple of strong characters in the team, me, of course, and a couple of Bosnians who spoke very little English, so that was fun, especially as I thrashed them time and time again at chess. There were also couple of French ex-soldiers which was good for me as I spoke French very well and could have one or two decent conversations at least during the assignment.
After days of sleepless, nervous nights, instruction came for us to escort all the votes back to the relative safety of the airport where they would be guarded by military and counted. The trucks for the votes were escorted to us at the warehouse by another CP team and we guarded them with our weapons at the ready as they were being loaded with the containers of votes we had guarded with our lives. The Iraqi fork lift drivers were completely useless and kept bashing into the boxes we had carefully protected and so, losing my patience, I kicked him off the forklift and loaded many of the crates myself. I felt like shooting him but that might have been a little extreme. We sat down with the drivers and team and explained how we were going to set up the convoy back to the airport, with the votes tightly protected by our vehicles and weapons.
While in driving formation on the motorways I was in the rear car, my main task was to make sure no one overtook or got in between the convoy and I literally swept the area constantly from side to side all the way to the airport, making sure no one got too close. A few times vehicles did get too close, either not really knowing who or what we were, or just trying their luck, and I leaned precariously out of the window, aiming my AK at them, showing them we were armed and dangerous and to back off. I waved my hand in an up and down motion to show them to slow down, if they were stupid enough to ignore me I fired a couple of rounds into the ground in front of them to show them we meant business. Thankfully everyone in Baghdad is now so used to a high profile military and private security presence and when someone points a weapon at them or their vehicles, they know precisely what to do . . . .and they back off!
At the end of that particular job most of the guys were sent home but a few including me, were kept back to help out on another job – to guard the new court- house building which was under construction for the trial of Saddam Hussain. Our job was to control the entrance, patrol the perimeter and check vehicles and personnel coming in and going out and making sure no one took any photos or ‘‘souvenirs’ or blew themselves up . . . ! That is another story for another day.
Letter from Iraq
By: Alex Powell
Extract from Bouncers and Bodyguards, Tales from a Twilight World by Robin Barratt
Available from all good bookshops and on-line at www.the-bba.org.uk/bookshop.htm