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Staging Security in a Theater of War

Iraq is a country of extreme beauty, but it also presents extreme challenges, both natural and manmade. Thus, arriving in Baghdad can be a physical and psychological shock and personnel should be prepared. It starts with how the plane lands. As a defensive maneuver, approaching planes typically corkscrew down to a landing strip that appears to be directly below where the planes began their descent. The drop can be harrowing as well as nauseating, and stepping off the plane with a full airsickness bag in hand is not the best way to start an assignment.

As the operational security manager for Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction firm in Overland Park, Kansas, I visited Iraq several times, most recently in May of 2004, to provide security inspections and oversee the security operations of my employer, which has been contributing to programs called Restore Iraqi Electricity and Restore Iraqi Infrastructure. My responsibilities included training our engineering and construction personnel, who volunteered to deploy to Iraq, for the challenges of the mission. I have had the chance to see firsthand what worked best in terms of the pre-mission training and what needed improvement. While elections have occurred since that time, the violence has not abated. Consequently, the lessons learned are still valid for anyone headed to Iraq in the future.

Don't sugar coat.

There's no point in misleading employees about the risks they will face. Iraq is a theater of war, and while operating in parts of Pakistan, Algeria, or other hotspots might provide some insight, Iraq is unique.

I have witnessed veterans of projects in some of the most difficult and dangerous areas in the world pass up going to Iraq or return shortly after arriving. Companies must be honest about the risks in Iraq and give workers who aren't cut out for that level of risk a chance to opt out. Not doing so will only create problems down the road.


Those who will go must be physically and mentally prepared. For example, personnel must don personal protective equipment consisting of 30 or so pounds of Kevlar flak jackets and helmets. They will have to wear this equipment often, and I prepare staff for this burden by having them wear the equipment around their homes.

I also try to prepare them for the fear, shock, and possible trauma that come from being in a war zone. I explain that they will see and hear explosions and gunfire. They might encounter improvised explosive devices, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices or vehicle-concealed improvised explosive devices.

Tracers will light up the sky, the ground will tremble, and smoke will suddenly plume. We spent hours of training preparing workers to avoid or prepare for these threats before they set out for Iraq.

Another issue is the threat of kidnapping in Iraq. Trainers must discuss the facts and risks clearly and openly. Trainees should be taught when and how to look for a means of escape. Thomas Hammill, the Kellogg, Brown and Root truck driver who was kidnapped and escaped (twice) in Iraq, proved that escape is possible.

Briefings and training should cover a variety of other topics as well. The scope of that training is too vast to outline here, but some of the salient information that should be included in the training is raised throughout this article.

Attitude is also important. Each time I traveled to Iraq, I did a quick "gut check" to make sure that I had the right mind-set. So that I would not be distracted by unresolved issues at home, I set my priorities and affairs in order prior to departing.

Beware loose lips.

Kansas City to Baghdad is a long, exhausting flight, and personnel deployed to Iraq from the United States could well be desperate for chit-chat with a fellow passenger, if only to calm their nerves. That's fine, but caution is in order.

Beware the ubiquitous "What do you do for a living?" question. It seems innocent enough, but answering it truthfully might violate a cardinal rule of operational security (OPSEC).

Last April, I was standing in line at an airline ticket counter on my way to Iraq, via Amsterdam and Kuwait, when a man posed such a question to me. While waiting on my reply, the man stated that he was a student at a Middle Eastern university. Had I said "I am a Department of Defense contractor, working on security issues connected with restoring Iraqi electricity/infrastructure, and we will be based in Basra," where might the conversation have led?

Not everyone is a terrorist or collaborator, of course, but someone--a person in line, an employee behind the counter, the cleaning person pushing the mop nearby--might find the information useful. In this kind of case, there is no such thing as being too cautious.

Practicing OPSEC can be as simple as my reply: "I'm just on vacation." If I am pressed on my nationality, I often offer up "I'm Canadian," and the interest tends to wane. That simple ruse can avoid potential conflict.

I was in a Muslim nation on the first night of cruise missile and bombing attacks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example. As the large-screen televisions (rolled into the lobby especially for this event) blared, viewers who assumed I was American questioned my country's reasons for the attack.

I'm proud to be a United States citizen, but acknowledging my nationality right then might have unnecessarily jeopardized my mission. I became Canadian for the rest of the trip, and the cab drivers and hotel guests left me alone.

I fly U.S. airlines when possible, but whether I am on a U.S. or foreign-owned carrier, I do not review materials or documents relating to business while en route, and I do not discuss, read, or review business matters with anyone accompanying me, be they colleague or total stranger.

I am continually conscious of "shoulder surfing." I advise workers going to Iraq not to even bother taking out a document if they don't want to see it in the newspaper the next day. I also encourage them not to work at all on the trip. They will need all their strength once they touch down.

Expect extremes.

Some basic advice is in order: Don't eat a heavy meal prior to the flight, and avoid alcohol. An airsickness pill such as Dramamine might be a good idea as well.

If possible, personnel should always arrive in the bright light of day. Both air and land travel is riskier at night because darkness conceals possible threats. The intense heat--temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit--saps the life of anyone who is not well prepared. To give my trainees a sense of what to expect, I tell them to imagine placing their face directly in front of a hair dryer that has been left on "high" for about 10 minutes. Such is the furnace of Iraq.

Water intake is crucial. I advise our personnel to begin drinking lots of water in advance of their trip and to maintain or increase this level of intake while they are in-country. If they wait until arrival to up their water intake, it's too late. It takes a few days for a body to acclimate to increased water intake; until then the body quickly expels it.

During my first visit to Iraq, I had been walking around for a few hours when I realized that my flak jacket was white from the salt escaping from my pores. This underscored the importance of continual hydration.

Timing isn't everything.

Newcomers to Iraq are often seen checking their wristwatch when a "whoomp" is heard or felt. Someone has spread the information (no doubt to calm the uninitiated) that the military deals with unexploded ordnance on the hour and half hour. In fact, that type of information is dangerous.

Personnel who believe it is okay to act casually during an attack that one thinks is just the U.S. military disposing of explosives are putting themselves and their coworkers at risk. Even if the information were true (at one time it may have been possible to consult your watch for ordnance-disposal time assurances), insurgents are clever enough to catch expatriates unawares by timing their attacks to correspond to the military's destruction of ordnance.

Plan for transport.

Travel in Iraq is never routine. The route to and from Baghdad's airport to the International Zone--the "safe" zone of the city, often called the Green Zone--is one of the most dangerous stretches in Iraq, and great caution, concern, and preparedness must be exercised while traversing this area. But all travel requires some measure of point-to-point protection.

Many companies choose to use private personal security detachment (PSD) convoys for transportation security as opposed to riding with the U.S. military convoys. That's because military convoys tend to be more noticeable and attractive targets. They are also not likely to be available on the contractor's schedule.

Also, a private car traveling in a military convoy is likely to be the most vulnerable link in the chain. Government contractors can find out about PSD providers from the government and other contractors. They should have teams in place well before any personnel are sent to Iraq.

At the airport, our personnel join a PSD, which accompanies them to their destination and elsewhere during their stay in Iraq. The PSDs we use consist of highly trained former military special-forces personnel. Most are former U.S. forces, but others are from countries in the U.S. coalition in Iraq. Other PSDs also use Iraqis and other foreign nationals as part of the details.

The best PSDs "call out" information to each vehicle as they travel, such as "Three men, 3 o'clock" or "Two on the roof, 9 o'clock." This approach lets forces in each vehicle assess potential threats themselves and train weapons on a target if necessary.

That's vital because vigilance should not be left to the PSDs alone. It takes everyone on board to serve as the eyes and ears of the group.

I trained my staff to be always alert and on the lookout for suspicious activities, objects, or people, such as fast-approaching vehicles, people on rooftops, and debris in the road.

It pays to be "consistently inconsistent" in Iraq, never traveling at the same times and on the same routes if possible. I also encourage our professionals to practice the "buddy system" with colleagues. That is, when they are up and around, traveling in PSDs or in other settings, they should check up on each other.

I ask them to inquire as to how their colleague is feeling that day. They should ask, "Are you 100 percent?" If they say no, and describe having a headache, being tired, or otherwise not being in peak condition, they need to be observed to determine what the issue is. Maybe they have been bitten by an insect or an animal, are dangerously dehydrated, have appendicitis, or suffer from an infection.

I would be remiss if I didn't give due credit to the PSDs with which I traveled. The crews I worked with and observed provided outstanding service and protection as I made my way through Hillah, Fallujah, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Tikrit, and other destinations such as Bayji and Mosul.

Beyond providing physical security, they conducted reconnaissance of planned routes and were constantly reassessing risks and tailoring their protective posture. Their bravery, determination, and grit warrant special mention.

Have emergency plans.

I have always operated on the "Six P Principle," which is shorthand for "Proper Planning Prevents Pretty Poor Performance." Relying on the U.S. government or military is not always an option, so internal readiness, coupled with mutual assistance and contingency arrangements with others, is mandatory.

It is critical to have self-explanatory emergency action plans in Iraq and for workers to be well-acquainted with them so that all players will know their roles and be ready to act after being shaken out of bed by a missile, mortar, or small-arms-fire attack.

Each worker should be given a list of actions to take immediately after an emergency. These can be presented on index cards, but they must also be ingrained in everyone's minds. For example, as part of the plan, our personnel know what to do if their PSD team is incapacitated or they are kidnapped.

Medical assistance. Emergency medical assistance is frequently needed. Medical treatment is handled by trained professionals at the job site, camp, or compound. The more serious the injury, the more it may require emergency medical transportation or an airlift to the closest U.S. military medical facility outside of Iraq

Personnel should be trained in telltale signs of medical conditions, such as rashes, headaches, and listlessness. They should also know basic first aid and how to quickly summon medical attention.

Evacuations. Work-site evacuations must be expected. One critical factor is ensuring that personnel know the locations of all blast shelters and bunkers, when to take cover, how to take cover, and what to do next. It is also important to know what types of structures are safe to use as shelters.

Some shelters consist of squared sections of concrete that might someday end up being used to construct sewers, with more elaborate versions being dug at an angle into the ground with poured concrete steps and incandescent lighting.

An important precaution before entering any shelter is to check for desert pests such as scorpions and camel spiders. This is especially true in the hottest part of the day; they love the shade.

Poor attention to evacuation procedures left me with an extremely sore jaw in one case. When a Katyusha rocket whizzed over our camp early one cool morning, two workers in a panic sped face first into each other. After the impact, one of them continued running, crashing his forehead into my jaw. I grabbed both men by the collar and shoved them into the closest shelter, which was less than 15 feet away.

The rocket detonated in a blinding flash, and the concussion of the blast disoriented us for a few moments. A trailer was destroyed in this incident, but thankfully no one was injured. Not everyone can keep their wits about them in such situations, but having a working knowledge of the bunkers closest to your present location, as well as what to do in all other emergencies, will help.

Communication. My company uses what it calls the "Lifeline" program, whereby any time a professional is outside of the United States, we provide him or her with around-the-clock emergency contact information. The numbers are used to reach our security and safety managers and their own management team.

Personnel may also provide this information to relatives or friends. In the case of Iraq, I have received many worried telephone calls after media reports of attacks or explosions from persons attempting to determine the safety of someone they care for who was in Mosul, Bayji, or Baghdad at the time. The value of having a quick resource for determining the well-being of a loved one is incalculable. Fortunately, our staff has been unharmed in these incidents.

Physical security.

Even nonsecurity personnel should at least be familiar with the basics of effective physical security in the Iraq environment. They should understand what security purposes are served by equipment and personnel. These include the role of barriers, staffing, and protection from projectiles. They should also understand the proper use of security lighting.

Barriers. Barriers, such as Jersey and Hesco (collapsible wire-mesh containers with a heavy-duty plastic liner, filled with sand, dirt or gravel, as described by the Army News Service), are an important piece of a layered defense system. Hesco barriers, single rows or double-stacked, are quickly installed economical protection that provide peace of mind.

In addition, preformed, tall concrete walls can be stood on end and fused together to form barriers. Topping these and existing walls with concertina wire and adding observation towers provides for solid reinforcement, protection, and response. Concrete barriers forming vehicle entry points and reinforced guardhouses provide protection for checkpoints.

Manpower. Observation towers and vehicle entry posts must be staffed with properly trained, equipped, vetted, and supervised security officers who guard specific posts. Additional backup and mobile security guards should operate in tandem to form a proper security force. Concerns include training and drills, standard operating procedure, weapons proficiency, and rules of engagement, to name a few.

Projectile protection. Interior layers of defense include sandbags or Hesco barriers surrounding mobile units/trailers serving as offices or living quarters. Wherever possible, units should be constructed without windows to limit the potential for glass projectiles resulting from blasts.

Personnel should keep work areas away from windows, and if there is window glass, it should be taped over or laminated for protection from flying fragments after a blast.

Steel plating is often inserted into mobile unit walls, roofs, and flooring to provide additional protection from projectiles. In those cases, staff need not be as concerned with being near a wall. Stacking sandbags along any structure provides additional peace of mind.

Lighting. As opposed to a security setting in a stable society, lighting in Iraq is less a deterrent than a risk. Personnel should be informed that lighting actually provides targets for insurgents' small-arms fire, mortars, or rockets. And too much lighting allows insurgents to observe the numbers of protective personnel, their equipment, and level of expertise.

Night-vision equipment is useful for those tasked with watching for signs of movement outside of the perimeter. There are, however, times when lights must be used. Emergency lighting and generators are indispensable, and spotlights, whether portable for vehicles or mounted in observation towers, are handy as well.

In a theater of war, of course, personnel must continually update risk analysis and reevaluate the security posture. Countermeasures must constantly be refined to correspond to threat levels and enemy tactics. Thus, personnel should expect constant readjustment of security measures.

Building the Iraqi infrastructure is a humbling, exhausting, yet exhilarating experience. Contractors who wish to serve in that capacity probably won't have military training or the full resources of the U.S. military behind them, however, and it is incumbent on firms to properly train personnel for that environment and review ongoing security strategies to maintain their effectiveness. Doing so will go a long way towards ensuring that their workers, though constantly in harm's way, are not actually hurt.

Scott Ast, CPP, CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), is operational security manager for Black & Veatch in Overland, Kansas. He is a member of ASIS International.