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Big Demand For A Very Specialized Set Of Skills

Like other private security contractors, Blackwater USA tends to draw heavily from the ranks of retired U.S. military personnel, particularly special operations forces, for missions in Iraq. But hiring by Blackwater and other security firms has put added pressure on Pentagon officials who increasingly worry about soldiers leaving the military early to take advantage of lucrative private offers.

While a U.S. Army sergeant's annual pay ranges from $51,100 to nearly $70,000, contractors guarding vehicle convoys can make two to three times as much, about $13,000 per month. The highest salaries, for former special operations soldiers guarding high-level officials, can reach $33,000 per month, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In Baghdad, U.S. officials have long worried about what they consider to be the propensity of private contracting companies to recruit special operations soldiers--who each cost the Pentagon hundreds of thousands of dollars to train. Last month before Congress, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates brought up the possibility of establishing some sort of "noncompete clause" to limit the ability of contractors to recruit active-duty soldiers. "I worry that sometimes the salaries that they are able to pay in fact lure some of our soldiers out of the service to go to work for them," Gates said.

Cowboys. Hard numbers, however, are hard to come by. When the GAO studied the question in 2005, it was not able to determine whether recruiting by private contractors was having any particular effect on attrition rates. And the Pentagon has been trying to counter any appeals by increasing re-enlistment bonuses. During his appearance before Congress, Blackwater Chairman and CEO Erik Prince denied trying to recruit active soldiers but worried that new restrictions could backfire. "I think it'd be upsetting to a lot of soldiers if they didn't have the ability to go use the skills that they've accumulated in the military to go work in the private sector, because you could make the same case about aviation mechanics, jet engine mechanics, guys that work on a reactor on a submarine," he said.

Few military officials can envision a noncompete clause, but they do anticipate greater oversight and vetting of contract employees. "I'm glad to see it coming out," says one U.S. soldier who, like many in Baghdad, routinely jokes about the over-the-top swagger of paid private guards in Iraq. "They come in here all cowboyed up," says one military officer. Contractors also enjoy more freedoms while serving in Baghdad, including access to alcohol while off duty. "Our troops are much more disciplined," one soldier says. "There's no love lost between Blackwater and the military, that's for sure."

By Anna Mulrine, with Kevin Whitelaw