Good benefits and lots of traveling
On a chilly morning on a frozen estuary a meter above the river Pirita in northern Estonia we sparked up a chat with a fisherman we’ll call John. It turned out he’s a former British soldier of nine years and has now gone over to the private sector. Yep, he’s one of those mercenaries who worked in Iraq back when people were still mad about Saddam Hussein. The whole wide world knows about these guys already but with a brand-new war starting in Afghanistan today, we’re feeling nostalgic for the way things used to be fucked up. We’re sharing our interview with him.
John: I was in Iraq and we were all primarily ex-military; some came from a police background and some both. Some companies use a lot of operators from Samoa, or they can be from Eastern European countries, it’s supply and demand. When we arrived there were a lot of ex-Ghurkas, a lot of Brits, a lot of Americans, but due to cost of close protection contracts they started to recruit from other countries. Iraq is so unique because you have civilian operators alongside the military. When I arrived the situation wasn’t dire, but I was very surprised at how quickly the situation escalated it became very, very dangerous very, very quickly. The terrorists adapted, they learned fast and they became far more skilled quickly. When I left after 14 months I was amazed at how dangerous it had become. I decided to leave so I could use the experiences from Iraq in other places around the world.
Were there any female soldiers?
Girls want to get normal jobs, wear attractive clothes, makeup. There were women, but in my job you work mostly with men; the majority of clients are men too. There are female operatives because if you are looking after a female client she will often prefer to have a female protection officer alongside her.
So what is it that you do?
The aim of close protection is to keep your client out of trouble. A really important part of the job is planning. Really analyze where you are going, how you will get there and get back. If you do encounter danger – extract – get your client to safety. The guys doing other work, like to convey protection where they have to get supplies from A to B, those guys are targeted by terrorists. Chances of being in a fire fight are much higher. We don’t want to get into a fire fight, but it is important that we do to have the necessary firepower to deal with that threat.
What would it cost me to hire a soldier of my own?
You see a lot of “it depends on what you want.” Do you want bulletproof vehicles? If you want bulletproof vehicles, then there’s the manufacturing arrangement, the purchase cost, importing and so on. That’ll cost you. You may want vehicles that blend in, that aren’t bulletproof, then the contract would be cheaper. What is your team equipped with? State-of-the-art weapons, state-of-the-art electronics, ECM equipment [Electric Counter Measures] – which means you have the means to detect and possibly even prevent explosive devices from being electronically activated? If the client doesn’t want very much, then the contract will be cheaper.
In a situation like that, are you paying for the nationalities of your soldiers or for the actual equipment?
It goes both ways. Some people don’t want to use local soldiers--Iraqis for example--because you can’t vouch for their credibility. They may be of good character, but if they have a member of their family who is kidnapped… it’s very difficult. So if you use operators from outside the country, it offers a client a good feeling.
Do people like you go to war zones for the money?
If you take the close protection industry seriously you need to go to hotspots. You have to learn out there. You have to adapt as the terrorists change their tactics. I earned just as good money with Saudi royal families in Switzerland and the UK. You can earn as good money working on contracts in the UK. A lot of operators would not go to war zones for the money. Experience was the reason.
When I was in the army, compared with nowadays, it was a relatively quiet period. In my nine years I went to Ireland and Bosnia. All I wanted to do was go out where the action was. But the modern army now is seeing action consistently, you are in Iraq, in Afghanistan, back out to Iraq, there’s no letup.
What is the funnest assignment you have had?
Guarding some foreign Royal children. We spent most of our time ten-pin bowling and one of the girls literally wrapped herself around my leg when she was supposed to get on board her private jet – she didn't want me to leave her! I have also worked undercover commercially, and anyone who saw me working as an undercover pizza chef was confused. What else… guarding a dead body. He was a very important gentleman and died of natural causes. He didn’t die because I screwed up!
One bizarre job was guarding a gentleman who had to leave the UK due to a threat on his life. We had to ensure he got on his flight at Heathrow but before he did we also had to get the correct cage for him to take his parrot in. Watching this wizened old man and his parrot being looked after by two burly blokes twice his size must have looked weird. No chance of being indiscreet on that job.
I also worked in Prague and guarding my client in a transvestite bar was fun--I don't think you'd have found such a place when the Iron Curtain was up. And trying to do your job surrounded by cross-dressers was not something I thought happened in my line of work.
So what is the scariest situation you have been in?
Scarier than being in a Czech tranny bar?! Well, being ambushed in Mosul was scary – but it's amazing how you react as you’re trained to and it is over in an instant. To be honest, I was more scared fending off a Rotweiller dog. I was guarding a difficult Arab child with behavioural problems. He hit the dog on its nose when we were in Richmond Park with his Frisbee and the dog went ape. There I was with him and his sister behind me as I kept this dog at bay with a flurry of low kicks. The boy thought it was hilarious.
Do you ever shit your pants? I mean, how do you cope with fear?
I think everyone feels fear unless they're unbalanced. You can reduce fear levels with training and experience but not eradicate it completely.
If you were presenting the close protection industry to a bunch of kids on Career Day, what would you say?
Don't even think about it until you have been in the armed forces or police for some time. It can be incredibly boring most of the time and you can be away from your home and partner for long stretches. You are not there to enjoy yourself, but your client should enjoy their life and the freedom your protection allows them to have. At the end of the day you have to accept that you could die doing your job. Remember if you have someone who loves you waiting at home it's he or she who have to soldier on. I think this is a single man's game.
What kind of music do you listen to when you work?
If I said I had music playing in the back-up vehicle some would say it was unprofessional so I won’t say it, but I pump a lot of iron and listening to AC/DC or Andrew WK makes you train hard.
What is the future prognosis for the industry?
As long as the “war on terror” continues, the security and close protection industry will carry on being busy. I think many people are ignorant of what the Muslim fanatics and Al-Qaeda want. Look at their aims and you will not see an early end.