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Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives
"I hate to say it, but I am so thankful for this war," he said. "I only came over here for the money, and I didn't even know I could do this job until two years ago. I didn't know it was available to me."
Crescent's Iraqi employees were recruited by word of mouth; most lived around the southern city of Basra, a hotbed of Shiite militias, and were largely unknown to the company. Crescent used a two-tiered pay scale. Guards from the United States, Britain and other Western countries earned $7,000 a month or more. Iraqi guards earned $600 -- roughly $20 a day -- but performed the most dangerous work, including the manning of belt-fed machine guns while exposed in the back of the Avalanches.
Picco said the system was not ideal but was necessary to hold down costs. "To put 12 white people on a team, it's not economically viable," he said.
Before the attack, relations between the Western and Iraqi guards had deteriorated. Foord said the Iraqis were refusing to man the machine guns. After a rash of thefts, Crescent fired a group of Iraqi guards on his recommendation, Foord said.
One month before the kidnappings, Crescent's entire stockpile of weapons -- dozens of AK-47s, PKM machine guns, grenade launchers, thousands of rounds of ammunition, body armor -- disappeared from locked shipping containers at a compound across the border in Iraq, Picco and several former employees recalled.
Picco said he sent out one of his Iraqi employees with $50,000 to buy new weapons on the black market. Some of the guns came back with serial numbers matching those on the stolen weapons.
'There Was No Place They Couldn't Go'
Last August, three months before the attack, a Crescent-led convoy was transporting trucks to an Iraqi army compound in Numaniyah, about 50 miles southeast of Baghdad. On an isolated stretch of Main Supply Route Tampa, the principal highway in southern Iraq, a bomb struck a Crescent gun truck carrying three Iraqi guards. One died within minutes. Another was pinned inside the truck, his hands severed and his femur protruding from his pants-leg.
Reuben, the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who served as the company medic, reached for his trauma kit. But Crescent had failed to provide him with tourniquets and morphine, Reuben recalled before he was seized, so he tried to stanch the bleeding with swatches of fabric he tore from his armored vest. The driver remained conscious for 45 minutes but bled to death, Reuben said. "If they saw what I saw, they would get what we need," he said.
Picco said Crescent gave Reuben all the medical supplies he asked for, suggesting that any shortages stemmed from his own failure to ask.
A friendly, heavy-set man who turned 40 shortly after he was kidnapped, Reuben wore an EMT cap but said his training came mostly from first-aid courses and books. He said he now drank alcohol only occasionally. Schneider, Crescent's former director of security, said that the company was aware of Reuben's history of alcoholism but added that Reuben had been "cleaning himself up."
"In this job, as long as you have people willing to work for the money, you don't need a medic," said Cote, the missing former paratrooper. "The military is different, because you care about your soldiers, and they're doing it for service and commitment. For us, it's like a paycheck. I still think you should have some necessities, but you don't always get those."
For employees unable to obtain the military identification badges needed to gain access to U.S. bases, Crescent created its own Italian security cards in Kuwait City, according to former employees.