I was nine when President Eisenhower warned of the threat to democracy presented by a war industry entwined with the profession of arms — the military industrial complex. Big words for a nine-year-old. Abstract, too. And complicated. By the time I entered the military industrial complex at age 54, it was far less abstract but vastly larger and more complicated than even Ike could have anticipated. In 2006 the Army already employed more contractors than soldiers. Like most contractors, I was originally trained by the military at taxpayer expense and stayed in the reserves. The Army could have easily put me on orders at minimal expense to do the jobs I did and taken me off orders when the job was done. Instead, the government spent a huge amount of money to pay me a much higher salary than I would have received as a soldier doing the same job and paid the companies for which I worked even more for the privilege of brokering my services.
The First Contractor War
We live in amazing times. The Iraq invasion of 2003 has been called the “First Contractor War” — the first war America has fought with more contractors than troops. Civilian labor has always supported the military, mostly in logistics, maintenance and transportation, but up until 1990, the US military employed relatively little contract support. In the Balkan conflicts of the mid 1990s, the numbers of contract security employees reached one for every fifty soldiers, an unprecedented number. With the Bush-Cheney administration, the figures exploded. The number of contractors supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars not only exceeded the number of soldiers, we served in every field including combat.
The justification for hiring contractors is that we are necessary to perform missions the military cannot perform by itself. We fill a temporary deficit in talent. Historically, nations have often hired mercenaries when faced with insufficient numbers of trained troops, but the contractors with whom I have the most experience are different from traditional mercenaries. Most are US citizens and almost all were themselves members of the US military and many still serve in the reserves or National Guard while working as contractors.
The “All-Volunteer” Military
Since eliminating the draft in 1973 we have had an “all-volunteer” military. This doesn’t quite mean what it says. Volunteering for military service isn’t like volunteering to help the Red Cross or Boy Scouts with a bake sale. It means choosing to work for the military instead of, say, Microsoft. Whether a mercenary, a contractor, or a soldier, we all choose to do what we do — at least in part — for financial reasons. People like Pat Tillman who leave million-dollar careers to serve in the Rangers and die tragically are rare. Most of us — contractors and soldiers alike — serve both because we love our country and because we need the money. That doesn’t make a contractor less patriotic than a soldier nor a soldier less mercenary than a contractor. Most of us oscillate between the civilian and military worlds serving the same missions driven by the same motivations.
Even though former service members are hired back by the military to do work it cannot staff, it would be misleading to imply that contractors are more talented or intelligent than the military professionals they left. They often leave the military to enter the contractor force simply because it pays better and they can always go back. Indeed, military service is often the only way to get the training, experience and security clearances needed to qualify for the contract jobs. Many contractors bounce back and forth and so did I.
The military loses much of its best talent to private industry. Not only does private industry usually pay better, accomplishment in the military commonly goes unrewarded. Indeed, it often seems that the military rewards failure and punishes success. This is because almost everything in the military is done by teams. A unit is only as strong as its weakest link or as fast as its slowest member. You rarely gain anything by rewarding your strongest achievers but the whole unit does better when the bottom performers improve. I saw this throughout my career which began in 1973 when I entered Basic Training. Enlistees who had not graduated high school were given time off to study for their GEDs while the rest of us did double duty to cover their absence. If the higher performers wanted to get an advanced degree, they did it on their own time and paid for it themselves. The physically unfit are put on special exercise programs during duty hours to bring them up to the minimum standard while the rest of us pay out of pocket for our gym memberships and get our exercise in after hours.
“… designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” ~Herman Wouk in The Caine Mutiny
The military is a place where unremarkable people can thrive and it is also the starting point for most contractors. During the boon times of Bush-Cheney there was opportunity for kids who barely — and sometimes never — graduated high school to enlist for a couple of years, get trained in an easy job, take a two-week course on how to be an instructor and then step into a contract instructor position that paid twice what a high school math teacher with a Master’s in Education could hope to make. Starting salaries in the $70 to $80k range were usual. Contractors overseas could make up to $1000 a day, often tax-exempt.
Nothing in the Army is very hard. It can’t be. The defense of the nation cannot be left to the unpredictable availability of quality people when the need arises. The military is designed to be run by people of average to below average intelligence and ability. Even in fields where talent makes a difference, unremarkable people can usually find a job.
Where talent matters
I worked training military intelligence soldiers, a field where talent matters. Most of my fellow contractors were no more talented than the soldiers they supported, yet nevertheless came to consider themselves subject matter experts and thought these salaries appropriate. Despite having no experience in the professions, they considered themselves highly trained professionals. The constant praise of the public (“Thank you for your service.”) and life in a system that gave them a sense of self-respect was addicting. As the country evolved into a permanent state of war, the defense contractor evolved from a temporary job into a profession, something one could hope to do for the rest of one’s life. For more than ten years, it was a lucrative profession that offered grossly inflated salaries. Even now, the jobs still pay more than do most entry-level positions in the civilian market. The well-paying jobs have now lasted long enough for contractors to achieve expertise that exceeds the soldiers they support.
When the money began to dry up and contractor jobs with it, the marketplace became more competitive. As contracts were rebid, we often found ourselves with the option of taking a substantial cut in pay to work the same job for a new contracting company or moving on. The more talented contractors left for other better-paying work. By 2012 only the least qualified and cheapest labor was being sought. Minimal certifications for the lowest price became the dominant policy. Salaries fell below $60k for CONUS work — work within the continental United States — and slots for overseas work in combat zones began to offer less than $100k. At a time when value — bang for buck — mattered most, our military turned its back on the best people. The drop in quality of intelligence collection and analysis hastened the collapse of our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and left us once again blind to the looming threat of ISIS.
Rather than save money, scrimping on quality only increased the waste. At the Military Intelligence school at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, graduation rates plummeted from 95% in 2011 to 50% in August of 2012. In the fall they dropped to single digits and by winter there were no students at all. At the end of 2012, the entire staff of military and contract instructors with all the overhead of a school sat idle with nothing to do but soak up tax dollars.
The scarcity of effective Human Intelligence collectors in Afghanistan and Iraq led to fewer and poorer quality intelligence reports, which in turn led to mission failure. In the fall of 2012 I took a job as Senior Counterintelligence Analyst in support of operations in Afghanistan and witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of eliminating quality people for the sake of cutting budgets.
A nation at war
We live in absurd times. We are a “nation at war” yet only about one citizen in a thousand wears the uniform. The reserves and National Guard make up two thirds of our deployed forces. Many reservists have seen more combat than any soldier did in WWII. Private companies protect our Diplomatic Corps using elite soldiers trained by the military because the military doesn’t have enough soldiers. Blackwater security guards protected Paul Bremer, the US official tasked with transitioning Iraq to self-government, himself a contractor.
Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, optimistically makes the case that the military cannot and never has been able to function without the help of private industry. I don’t deny this. Even fully staffed and funded, the Army is well capable of failing at every turn. How is it that private industry can accomplish missions the military cannot by using the very personnel the military trained and can still access?
One reason is the profit motive. The military cannot or will not offer soldiers the financial incentives for success that private industry can. Neither will the government reinstitute the draft nor expand the already prodigious budget of the Defense Department, which is greater than all the militaries of the next 19 countries in the world combined. The huge contractor paychecks attract talent away from the military, exacerbating the shortage and deepening the military’s dependence on contract help.
But another reason is management. Military officers and NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) are not trained to manage the way corporate managers are and they are not rewarded for good management. Success in the military isn’t measured by profit. There are no medals for saving money or improving the bottom line. In the military, success and failure are often indistinguishable.
In my opinion, the weakness in Prince’s argument is that even when efficient and effective contracting corporations are enlisted to serve the mission, even when they hire the best people, they are still ultimately led by military managers. Even when the contractors fulfill 100% of the requirements of the contract, the mission can still fail and often does. No matter how much better civilian organizations perform than military units, they are still subservient to a military organization prone to mismanaging its expensive talent.
I work for him, but he works for me
So, the government continues to hire defense contractors it has trained at taxpayer expense and has access to from companies charging a price several times the cost of just putting them back in uniform. If the absurdity of the taxpayer being gouged to buy back resources the Army already owns weren’t enough, consider the situation I found myself in at Ft. Devens. From 2009 through 2010 I was the Raytheon Site Lead managing up to 40 contractors. They worked for me, but many were reservists who had to be accommodated when they went on orders. I myself was the Sergeant Major of the local reserve Military Intelligence (MI) battalion whose mission was exactly the same as my civilian job — to train reserve MI students at Ft. Devens. My Raytheon team answered to the Course Manager, a mid-level NCO in my own unit. I worked for him, but he worked for me.
Who is in charge?
Even more fun was trying to figure out a precise chain of command. The Course Manager answered to the 1st Brigade as did I indirectly as Battalion Sergeant Major. But his evaluator was the Ft. Devens Team Chief, who answered to the 80th TTC (TASS Training Command). The 1st Brigade answered to the 100th Division which was also under the 80th TTC. One would think that the commanding general of the 80th TTC would be completely responsible for the facilities as well as the school — TASS stands for Total Army School System — but both the facilities and school were located on Ft. Devens, which answered to the 99th Regional Support Command (RSC). Content of the course was governed by the US Army Intelligence Center and School (USAICS) at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, under the command of yet a third two-star general.
Dizzy yet? The school was located in Massachusetts, the 1st Brigade in Rhode Island, the 100th Division in Kentucky, the 80th TTC in Virginia, the 99th RSC in New Jersey, and USAICS in Arizona. My Raytheon project in Massachusetts was supervised by an office in Arizona which answered to an office in Florida which was part of Raytheon’s Technical Services Company in Virginia, which was part of Raytheon, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts. Waltham is just 30 minutes down the road from Ft. Devens, but might as well be in another galaxy.
Raytheon is an aerospace company and supplying contract instructors for the Military Intelligence schools is not one of its core competencies. Raytheon subcontracted out to a number of smaller contracting companies. Nobody keeps track of the subs which continuously pop up and vanish like champagne bubbles. Although almost all of the government contract work goes to a few big companies, they sub to thousands of smaller, transient companies. In Florida alone, there were more than a thousand in 2013.
Nobody knows how many contractors there are, how much money is being spent on contractors or how many contractors are killed, maimed or otherwise have their lives ruined. (Singer, 2008) Because the contracts are regularly rebid, the owners of the contract would change yearly as a rule, sometimes even more often. When that happened, all of us working on the mission would change companies. It was not unusual to work at a single job for half a dozen companies. Between 2006 and 2014 I worked for Anteon, General Dynamics, Oberon, Raytheon, Intecon, L-3 Stratis, and Mission Essential Personnel, all in the same job I could have done as a soldier. And in fact, I did two deployments as a soldier and several short periods on orders during that time as well.
More contractors than soldiers
The estimates of the total number of contractors vary widely, but they exceed the total number of military personnel by a wide margin. The Department of Defense census of the industry in 2007 put the number at 180,000. Even that estimate is low because it did not include several of the biggest companies nor those that contracted with the Department of State and other agencies. The Senate Armed Services Committee found the amount of money spent on contractors in 2006 was $151 billion. Even the amount paid to Halliburton-KBR alone for that period was three times the money the US government spent to fight the entire 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The bewildering complexity of the whole system provides ways for the government to get a mission done that might be illegal if performed by the military. All departments have their limitations and hiring civilian corporations to accomplish missions vital to the nation’s security is one way to get around those limitations. The whole phenomenon of employing contractors as instruments of national power is so new the laws haven’t even caught up, which results in contractors doing things that should be illegal, but aren’t yet. The use of civilian interrogators hired by the CIA resulted in some of the more infamous examples and when I entered the contractor world, the military was in the middle of revising its rules and manuals on interrogation.
The complexity of the contractor system makes it easy for bad people to do bad things and continue even after discovery. When a contractor is fired, he can immediately present himself for employment through another company with a newly written résumé, fairly confident that no one will check his history of employment. The law requires that résumés be presented with the names hidden in order to protect people from discrimination. This law protects both the bad along with the good.
The title of this article notwithstanding, technically I wasn’t a contractor. I did not have a contract with the US military; I worked for a company that had such a contract. This is a very important distinction. Although we are called “contractors,” we were actually employees of contractors. We didn’t work for the Army. We worked for Raytheon and other companies which had contracts with the Army. So our military supervisor could not directly tell us what to do. He or she had to tell Raytheon what to do and the Raytheon Site Lead would do the actual directing. It is illegal for a military officer or NCO to personally direct contractors as individuals. Jail-time illegal.
The Course Managers I worked with, who were usually mid-level NCOs with little education or experience beyond leading squad-sized units, rarely understood this concept and it led to serious friction, especially when the contractor was also a reservist. The rules change dramatically when a contractor puts on a uniform and comes to work on drill weekend as a reservist to do the same job.
But isn’t that illegal?
It is also quite illegal for a military officer to tell a civilian company what to do with its civilian employees. A military officer cannot legally punish or promote a contractor. He cannot legally tell the company who to hire or fire or to demand discipline or block an individual from being hired. Yet this is a common occurrence in the contractor world, especially when the representative of the civilian company also serves in the contracting officer’s reserve unit. My civilian bosses walked a thin line balancing obedience to the law with keeping a military customer happy who was dead set on breaking it.
Consider as well that the contract force which was intended to be a temporary solution now represents the most robust pool of expertise available. Active duty is for most soldiers just a temporary experience. Most military jobs are temporary, with soldiers being constantly rotated through and taking their expertise with them. Contractors, by contrast, can stay in the same job for ten years or more, filling the chronic deficit their existence helps to ensure. After a year on the job at Devens, I could confidently demonstrate that my contractors could do everything better than the military staff could. All my “temporary” people had been on the job longer than the “permanent” military staff we worked for.
Employees? Not exactly…
Even calling ourselves “employees” is a bit misleading. In contrast to normal employment, we were “at will” employees. Most regular employees enjoy rights and protection under American labor laws we as “at will” employees did not. Regular employees are protected from discrimination and from unreasonable hiring and firing practices. They have access to benefits provided through the company that we did not enjoy. We didn’t get paid extra for overtime and didn’t get the normal weekends and holidays off. Regular employees can look forward to bonuses and promotions for excellent performance; “at will” employees, being hired for a single contract, cannot. Since we rarely stayed with the same company for more than a year, we often failed to qualify for the benefits regular employees received. Some benefits like paid medical leave and education funding often do not come into effect until an employee has been with the company more than a year. Even the referral bonuses were usually contingent upon the referral staying with the company for more than twelve months.
In short, “at will” contractors are commodities rather than employees and that left us vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. For example, if the customer — a military commander controlling the contract — did not feel there should be a place for single mothers or lesbians in the military effort, he could fire that person with impunity without stating his reason. This sort of thing happens a lot.
Contractors are often treated with spite and slandered as being less than patriotic because we get paid large amounts of money to do the same job uniformed soldiers do for less. Some call us mercenaries. Contractors work for the money, but we often do truly add value — bang for buck — to the military, and when we don’t, we are easy to fire. We love our country. I never met a contractor whose primary loyalty was to his company over his country. And contractors suffer even more casualties than the military but are not included in the casualty figures. All of the soldiers I personally knew who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts died working as contractors.
The US military resorts to employing reservists and guardsmen for the same reason it employs contract support. Standing armies (i.e. Active Duty) are expensive and reserve units are cheap. Reservists perform the same duties as Active Duty but without the need to be paid for the time they are not fighting. This trinity of Active Duty military, reservists and contractors created the vertiginously complex system into which I was sucked in 2006.
The Raytheon Site Lead position was, in all sincerity, the best job I ever had. I looked forward to going to work every day. It wasn’t just the pay and benefits. It wasn’t the pleasant conditions or limited hours. It wasn’t the people I worked with, although there were some gems. It certainly wasn’t the prestige. It wasn’t the feeling of accomplishment when a project came together and succeeded, though that was important. It wasn’t even the teaching, which I love, along with the chance to positively influence young men and women. What I liked best about the job was working with the difficult people.
It takes effort to screw up, but we do our best
Nothing about the project I oversaw was hard. You had to really apply effort to make something not work. But this field is flush with people who are more than up to the task of fouling things up. Even with success virtually guaranteed as long as nobody did anything stupid, every morning held the promise of personal problems to be worked out, petty squabbles to be mediated, covert agendas to be exposed, and good ideas to be held up to the light.
Virtually all the seemingly intractable problems I faced every day were people problems. They were almost never problems of substance — problems due to lack of money, space, equipment or personnel. They were, by and large, problems that people made for themselves and each other based on nothing more than spite and personal animosity. Realizing this, the solutions were quite simple if one could just identify and address the underlying motivation. It had all the excitement and challenge of inpatient psychiatry except that I couldn’t prescribe drugs.
I’ve published the story of my detour into this world. It is a story rich in irony, drama and humor. I originally considered titling it Catch-23 in allusion to Joseph Heller’s fictional lampoon of the WWII military in Catch-22. But I am neither a Heller nor a historian. I entertain no delusion that things will change, much less improve by writing about them. I intend only to relate what I saw before I pass on and hopefully in a manner that will afford my readers some entertainment.
And much entertainment is to be had.
 From June 2009 to March 2011 contractors outnumbered troops in Iraq and Afghanistan by a staggering ten-to-one. The ratio was much higher for the State Department and USAID. Christopher Shays, the co-chair for the Commission on Wartime Contracting made this comment to the press: “We can’t go to war without contractors and we can’t go to peace without contractors.”
 Pat Tillman was a professional football player who left his career to enlist in the Army and join the Airborne Rangers after the September 11 attacks. He was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire in 2004.
 According to Ann Hagedorn in The Invisible Soldiers — How America Outsourced our Security, at least one out of every ten returning soldiers goes to work as a contractor.
 There are some talented people who make the military their careers. In my experience, they tend to be found at the top and at the bottom, but rarely in the middle. I’ve met brilliant generals and bright junior soldiers. The military tends to chase away talent and those who stay in deserve credit for putting up with a system that fosters mediocrity.
 Instruction and training make up a sizeable chunk of military missions performed by contractors. Everything contractors do — security, intelligence, transportation, logistics, etc. — they also teach.
 There are exceptions, of course. Aviation, Medicine and Special Forces are very hard jobs that not just anybody can do. But most military jobs aren’t meant to be done by college graduates. Military Intelligence, the field I worked in as a contractor and soldier for the period covered by this memoir, is one of those fields that anybody can do but few can do well. In Military Intelligence, the difference between the quality soldier and the minimally qualified is striking.
 Much of what occupies the time of the professional soldier is some form of an on-going mission which has no objective criteria for success. For instance, our mission at Ft. Devens was to train soldiers, not to graduate 100 fully trained soldiers by a specific date. The vague, unmeasurable on-going work most full-timers did was, in my opinion, responsible for the usual reply “we’re working on it” whenever a unit leader might look into why things were not getting done. Under these conditions, it is very difficult to fire somebody for not producing results when the expected results are neither measurable nor have time limits.
 The final report of the Commission on Wartime Contracting included an estimate of “between $31 and $60 billion” lost to waste and fraud. Getting any sense of how much money is spent on contracting and for what is hampered by both the dysfunctional databases the Pentagon relies on and the inherent opacity of the contracting industry. P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors — The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
 This isn’t to imply that the government is turning a blind eye to illegal activity. A Google search of any major defense contracting company plus “investigation” returns hundreds of thousands of hits. Investigations of the main defense contractors has so overwhelmed the government that they have resorted to using (you guessed it) contractors to investigate the contractors.
 Peter Singer, a military scholar at Brookings Institution, points out in Corporate Warriors that, although the military has been able to bring charges against the soldiers who committed the misdeeds at Abu Gharaib, it does not feel it has jurisdiction over civilian contractors. Indeed, over the entire course of the war with over 100,000 contractors in country, not one has yet been charged, prosecuted or punished for any battlefield crime. This is in stark contrast to many crimes, great and small, for which US troops have been punished over the same period.
 The involvement of contractors in both security breaches and managing security breaches could not be better illustrated than the recent Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breach of April, 2015. First reported in June of 2015 and believed to be carried out by the Chinese, the breach involves the greatest theft of sensitive personnel data in history. The scale of the OPM breach involves the records of some 22 million current, former and prospective federal employees. Stolen data goes back to 1985. The same hackers who accessed OPM’s data are believed to have last year breached an OPM contractor, KeyPoint Government Solutions. When the OPM breach was discovered in April, investigators found that KeyPoint security credentials were used to breach the OPM system. To mitigate the attack, OPM appears to be allowing the clearance data of affected individuals to be exposed to unknown contractors. But since contractors were at the heart of the initial attack, there is no way of knowing what contractors now may have access to the clearance data based on an arbitrary “need to know” criterion. https://www.lawfareblog.com/why-opm-hack-far-worse-you-imagine, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/22/politics/opm-hack-18-milliion/index.html
 Joint Publication 4–10, Operational Contract Support (Washington, DC: GPO, 2008), xiii-xiv governs the relationship between the military and contract support. Command authority does not extend to contract employees.
 Weekend drills are now called “Battle Assemblies,” a term I could never get used to. Since Vietnam, the military has been trying hard to rebuild its self-respect. Sometimes these efforts take on a comical shine. We changed headgear to the black beret — at that time the distinctive cover of the Airborne Rangers — to make everyone feel elite. It had the opposite effect. All soldiers now are referred to as “warriors” whether or not they have actually fought. It took 30 days in combat operations as an infantryman to earn the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge, or CIB, when I joined in 1973. Now it takes only one day in a combat zone. There is even a Combat Action Badge (CAB) for those who have been exposed to fire but are not infantrymen.
Although there are important differences between the National Guard and the Reserves, I will often use them interchangeably when the difference doesn’t affect the meaning. Similarly, when I refer to the Army or to soldiers, the principle often applies to all services and service members. I hope I will be forgiven for neglecting the Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines for the sake of readability. Also, I feel I have earned the right to criticize and even ridicule the Army, but not the other services.
 A case in point was the vetting of my book Boondoggle — My Unexpected Career as a Military Defense Contractor. It took Raytheon a few weeks to thoroughly screen the manuscript for classified and proprietary material. The military, by contrast, worked on it for over six months with progress halted by screeners leaving their jobs and being replaced by new people who needed to start all over.
 An unexpected consequence of being an “at will” employee is that, because we work where ever the job takes us, sometimes even deploying with the supported unit abroad, we often do not live in the state of our official residence. When the unit I supported was in Arizona, I was technically an Arizona resident; when it was Massachusetts, I became a Massachusetts resident. Since I couldn’t take my kids with me to a combat zone, I left them with family in California while I was gone. Although my youngest lived there for years, graduated from a California high school, had a California driver’s license and was a registered voter, the University of California considered her to be an out-of-state resident and charged her out-of-state tuition because I didn’t live in California. Federal law mandates that children of soldiers deployed on active duty pay only in-state tuition regardless of their parent’s official state of residence. That law does not apply to the children of contractors serving with deployed units.
 In fact-checking this book, I attempted to contact as many of the people in it as possible to ensure that I remember the events accurately. Several of my colleagues asked that I not use their real names out of fear of possible retaliation both from the military and the companies they work for. None asked that I mask their identities and the work they do for security reasons. It gave me pause that those who are still working on classified projects as Counterintelligence agents and Human Intelligence collectors are less concerned about their identities being revealed to the enemy than to their employers.
 One of the more egregious practices of cheating reservists I witnessed was the habit of the Washington Army National Guard of putting soldiers on orders for four days a week repeatedly. By working four ten-hour days, they could get a full 40-hour week out of a soldier for only four days’ pay rather than seven. The brief nature of the orders also excluded the soldier from medical, dental and other benefits enjoyed by full-time soldiers.
 L. Sparks, Boondoggle — My Unexpected Career as a Military Defense Contractor. North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2016.
 I have sought avenues of redress, both governmental and military, for some of the activities I felt obligated to report. None bore fruit and neither the companies I worked for nor the Department of Defense have shown the slightest inclination to correct illegal or unethical practices.