Blackwater: When Things Go Wrong

Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, whose son and his three colleagues were killed in 2004 in Fallujah, says Blackwater sent them ''on a suicide mission.'' The four families are suing the company for damages. CHRIS CURRY / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
A grieving Blackwater mother
The Virginian-Pilot
Katy Helvenston-Wettengel's son, Scott Helvenston, was one of four Blackwater USA contractors killed by an Iraqi mob in an ambush at Fallujah in March 2004. The bodies were mutilated and two were hanged from a bridge, bringing worldwide attention to the Moyock, N.C.-based private military company. The victims' families are suing Blackwater, alleging that the men were sent into the insurgent hotbed unprepared.
© July 26, 2006

Part 4 of 6


It was the lynching seen around the world.

On March 31, 2004, an American convoy was ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah, a hotbed of Iraqi rage over the U.S. presence. The four men escorting the convoy in two Mitsubishi SUVs were killed in a fusillade of small-arms fire. A furious mob set the vehicles ablaze, dragged the bodies out and partly dismembered them. Two were strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

The entire episode was captured on film and aired worldwide.

The four dead Americans were not soldiers. They were civilians working for North Carolina-based Blackwater USA. The nation learned with a horrifying jolt that there was something new going on here: Modern warfare was being privatized.

The Fallujah ambush had profound consequences on two fronts:

n In Iraq, it irrevocably altered the course of the war. U.S. military commanders, who had no advance knowledge of the convoy’s presence in Fallujah, were ordered by Washington to change tactics and pound the city into submission, inflaming the Iraqi insurgency to new heights.

n Back home, families of the four victims are suing Blackwater for damages. The outcome could be costly for the company. It also has implications for the entire private military industry if it sets a precedent for holding companies legally responsible when their contractors die on the battlefield.

Inside America's
Private Army

Cutline here. CREDIT

Text: Contractor Scott Helvenston's last e-mail

List: Blackwater's fallen contractors

Transcript: The last flight of Blackwater 61


Blackwater also is the target of a lawsuit involving three servicemen killed in a plane crash in Afghanistan in November 2004. Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater declined to discuss either incident.

“Out of respect for the judicial process and out of respect for the families, we just won’t comment,” said company vice president Chris Taylor.

But in court papers, the company has laid out its defense in sweeping terms.

Blackwater is arguing that although it is a private company, it has become an essential and indistinguishable cog in the military machine and, like the military, should be immune from liability for casualties in a war zone.

At stake, Blackwater says, is nothing less than the authority of the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to wage war as he sees fit.

The plaintiffs say it’s all about corporate greed, unaccountability and a private army run amok.


Things do go wrong in a violent business like Blackwater’s.

A memorial garden on the Moyock compound attests to that. A ring of 25 large stones encircles a pond. Each one bears the chiseled name of a fallen contractor.

The company’s casualties are among more than 500 civilian contractors who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the fighting – roughly one-sixth of U.S. fatalities and more than twice as many as have been suffered by all of America’s coalition partners combined.

When a military service member is killed on the battlefield, a public announcement is made within 48 hours. The service member is entitled to burial in Arlington National Cemetery with a 21-gun salute and a bugler playing taps. An American flag is draped over the casket and presented to the next of kin.

When a private contractor dies, there is no fanfare. There is not even an official list of contractor casualties. The identities of the dead trickle out as their families come forward.

In a sense, it is the 21st century incarnation of the Unknown Soldier.

Taylor said the company’s policy of not identifying casualties is based on privacy concerns for their families.

“They have the choice of how they will honor the service and commitment of their loved ones,” he said.

Compared to soldiers, Taylor said, even wounded contractors “don’t enjoy a respectful status. How do you tell a guy who’s just lost his arm and eye escorting someone that just because he’s no longer wearing a uniform, he’s any less noble?”


With his tousled blond hair, Hollywood face and muscular build, Scott Helvenston was a walking advertisement for the Navy SEALs.

The Florida native joined the Navy on his 17th birthday and became the youngest-ever recruit to finish the rigorous training for the elite commando corps.

While stationed at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and living in the North End of Virginia Beach, he met a local girl, Patricia Irby. They were married in the base chapel in 1988, settled in San Diego and had two children.

Helvenston spent 12 years in the Navy, about half that time as a SEAL instructor. He was also a world champion pentathlete , fitness trainer and movie stuntman who coached Demi Moore for her role in the film “G.I. Jane.”

In March 2004, recently divorced and looking to make some short-term cash while waiting to start a new job, Helvenston signed on with Blackwater for a two-month tour in Iraq.

His mother says she begged him not to go.

“I said, 'It’s all about oil, Scotty. You don’t want to go risk your life for oil,’” said Katy Helvenston-Wettengel of Leesburg, Fla. “But he wanted to help, and he needed to make some money.”

She said he was told he would be doing security work for Paul Bremer III, head of the interim Iraq government. But after a week in Kuwait, Helvenston-Wettengel said, the mission suddenly changed.

Around 10 p.m. March 28, Helvenston was ordered to leave at 5 a.m. the next day with three Blackwater contractors he had never met, according to the lawsuit filed by the four men’s families. Their assignment: escort a convoy of flatbed trucks to pick up kitchen equipment from a military base on the edge of Fallujah.

When Helvenston resisted the order, citing the short notice and lack of preparation, the lawsuit alleges, his boss, Justin McQuown, reacted violently.

McQuown “burst into Helvenston’s bedroom … screamed at and berated him – calling Helvenston a 'coward’ and other demeaning and derogatory names,” the plaintiffs say in court papers. “McQuown then threatened to fire Helvenston if he did not leave early the next morning with the new team.”

Helvenston’s teammates, all ex-Army Rangers, were Wesley Batalona of Honokaa, Hawaii; Mike Teague of Clarksville, Tenn.; and Jerry Zovko of Cleveland.

According to the lawsuit, Blackwater broke its contractual obligations to the contractors by sending them into hostile territory in unarmored vehicles without automatic weapons or a rear gunner.

The lawsuit says: “Blackwater cut corners in the interest of higher profits.”

Blackwater won’t talk about Fallujah now, but eight days after the ambush, Patrick Toohey, a senior company executive, told The New York Times that the company had already made changes in its “tactics, techniques and procedures.”

Today, Taylor will say only: “We don’t cut corners. We try to prepare our people the best we can for the environment in which they’re going to find themselves.”

The lawsuit says otherwise, alleging that a Blackwater employee refused to give the team maps of the area, telling them “it was too late for maps.”

“They were sent on a suicide mission,” Helvenston’s mother said.

Helvenston-Wettengel says she was sitting at her home computer that day, doing research for her job as a real estate broker, with the TV on in the background, when the images of the burning SUVs and the rampaging mob began airing.

“I thought, 'How horrible for those families.’ A couple of hours later they said they were security contractors, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, Scotty’s a security contractor. But he’s in Baghdad, he’s OK, he’s not in Fallujah. He’s protecting Paul Bremer.’

“Finally around 4 o’clock they said 'Blackwater.’

“I called Blackwater and said, 'My name’s Katy. I’m Scott Helvenston’s mom. Is he OK?’ and they said, 'We don’t know.’ I was on and off the phone with Blackwater until 3 a.m. By midnight I knew he was gone. …

“They said, 'He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”

Blackwater: When Things Go Wrong (continued)

In Blackwater's memorial rock garden, stones etched with the names of fallen contractors pay tribute to 25 men - and one dog - killed while serving with the company in Iraq and Afghanistan. The statue of a boy represents the families of contractors. CHRIS CURRY / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

President Bush, enraged by the attack, ordered a major assault on the city. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the coming U.S. response: “It will be deliberate, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming. … We will pacify that city.”

A key objective of the assault, U.S. leaders said, was to capture the killers of the Blackwater contractors and bring them to justice.

The Blackwater incident was a tragic error that provoked a violent chain of events, according to Bing West, a former Marine and Reagan-era assistant defense secretary who wrote “No True Glory,” a book about the battle for Fallujah.

“Ultimately, Fallujah was a decision by our top leadership against the advice of the Marines,” West said in an interview. “They were not going to change their entire strategy because of a tactical error. They were overruled.”

 forces since the Vietnam War. As Al-Jazeera broadcast pictures of dead, bleeding and maimed Iraqis in Fallujah hospitals, the city became a rallying point for anti-U.S. anger.

Worried that the assault was jeopardizing the political stability of the country, U.S. leaders suspended the offensive a week later. The fighting settled into a series of skirmishes, flare-ups and periods of calm.

Four days after Bush was re-elected in November, the Marines launched a second, more deadly assault on the city with massive bombing and bloody house-to-house combat. The major fighting was over within a week.

“It looked like a savage tornado had roared through the downtown district, smashing everything in its path,” West wrote.

Over the course of the two sieges, U.S. forces carried out nearly 700 airstrikes in which 18,000 of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. About 150 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis were killed. The city was locked down behind barbed wire, a curfew declared and access limited by military checkpoints.

A year later, only about half of Fallujah’s population of 300,000 had returned.

The insurgency was quelled in Fallujah but intensified elsewhere across Iraq. Before the second assault on Fallujah in November 2004, U.S. military leaders estimated active enemy forces at 20,000. By January 2005, Iraq’s national intelligence chief placed the number at 200,000.

“In some ways, the second Fallujah campaign was the end of any hope for success for the United States in Iraq,” said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.

The perpetrators of the Blackwater ambush were never found.


On Nov. 14, 2004, the Marines rolled away a coil of razor wire and held a ceremonial reopening of the Fallujah bridge, calling the span’s clearing for traffic a symbolic victory. In black paint on the green trestle, a Marine had printed: This is for the Americans of Blackwater murdered here in 2004. Semper Fidelis.

Less than two weeks later, over Thanksgiving weekend, Blackwater was in the headlines again.

In broad daylight and clear weather, a twin-engine turboprop airplane operated by the company’s aviation affiliate, Presidential Airways, slammed into a mountainside in the rugged highlands of Afghanistan, killing all six aboard: three company crewmen and three U.S. soldiers.

An Army investigation found that the crewmen had no flight plan, lacked experience flying in Afghanistan, were poorly trained, had inadequate communications gear and violated federal regulations requiring the use of oxygen masks at high altitudes.

The families of the dead soldiers are suing Presidential Airways for negligence. The case is set for trial in February.

In both cases, Blackwater claims immunity under the Feres doctrine, a legal precedent that prevents someone injured as a result of military service from suing the federal government.

Contracts signed by the Fallujah victims include a section releasing Blackwater from liability for any loss or injury suffered on the job. The plaintiffs say the contracts are invalid because Blackwater failed to fulfill its obligations.

In court papers, the company cites the Pentagon’s “Total Force” concept, which designates private contractors as an integral component of the military mission along with active-duty and reserve troops and civilian employees.

Blackwater says the government’s unprecedented reliance on private contractors on the battlefield has made them so indistinguishable from uniformed personnel that the company should enjoy the same immunity from liability as the government.

“You can’t separate the contractors from the troops anymore,” Joseph Schmitz, general counsel of Blackwater’s parent company, said after a March federal appeals court hearing in Richmond.

In court papers, Blackwater says its contractors perform “a classic military function” and asserts that the courts “may not impose liability for casualties sustained in the battlefield in the performance of these duties.”

Blackwater casts its defense in constitutional terms, arguing that the separation of powers and presidential authority are at stake.

“The judiciary may not impose standards on the manner in which the President oversees and commands the private component of the Total Force in foreign military operations,” the company says in one brief.

To that, the plaintiffs in the Fallujah case reply that Blackwater is trying to have it both ways – acting as a private entity on one hand and aligning itself with the government on the other.

In their filing, they argue: “Blackwater cannot have its cake and eat it too. As a private security company, reaping private profits, they should be held accountable for their wrongful conduct, just like every other private corporation in America.”

Undergirding Blackwater’s profits, the plaintiffs say, is the workers’ compensation insurance that covered the Fallujah victims and has provided death benefits to their families under the federal Defense Base Act – insurance that is ultimately paid for by taxpayers.

The premiums are paid up front by Blackwater, then passed along to the government in the contracts. And if the insured person is injured or killed in a war zone, the government reimburses the insurance carrier for benefits paid.

Blackwater officials point out that the Defense Base Act has been in existence for 65 years and is routinely used by overseas government contractors.

In the end, the case is about more than money, said Marc Miles, a Santa Ana, Calif., lawyer representing the Fallujah victims’ families: “It’s about sending a message.”

Regardless of how the court fight turns out, Blackwater is moving on, looking for new opportunities once the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down.

Last summer, thanks to a nasty storm, it found a new niche right here at home.


News researcher Ann Johnson contributed to this report.


Reach Bill Sizemore at (757) 446-2276 or


Reach Joanne Kimberlin at (757) 446-2338 or

Transcript: The last flight of Blackwater 61

CASA 212 twin-engine turboprop airplane.

The Virginian-Pilot
© July 26, 2006

This is a portion of the transcript from the cockpit voice recorder taken from a CASA 212 twin-engine turboprop airplane flown by Presidential Airways Inc., Blackwater USA’s aviation affiliate. The plane – Blackwater 61 – took off from Bagram, Afghanistan, on Nov. 27, 2004, carrying a three-man civilian crew and three U.S. soldiers. The voices are those of Noel English, the captain; Loren Hammer, the first officer; and Melvin Rowe, the flight mechanic. Families of the soldiers are suing Presidential Airways.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board


English: I hope I’m goin’ in the right valley.

Hammer: That one or this one?

English: I’m just gonna go up this one. … We’ll just see where this leads. … Normally we’d have time to, on a short day like this, we’d have time to play a little bit, do some explorin’, but with these winds comin’ up I want to (expletive) get there as fast as we can. …

Rowe: I don’t see anythin’ over about 13-three is the highest peak in the whole route, I think. …

English: Yeah, so we’ll be able to pick our way around it. … Yeah, with this good visibility, (expletive) it’s as easy as pie. You run into somethin’ big, you just parallel it until you find a way through. … Cool up in here.

Hammer: Yeah, this is fun.

English: We’re not supposed to be havin’ fun, though. … It’s supposed to be all work. We can’t enjoy any of it.

English: Exactly.

Hammer: ’Cause we’re getting paid too much to be havin’ fun.

English: You’re God (expletive) right. …

Rowe: I don’t know what we’re gonna see. We don’t normally go this route. …

English: All we want is to avoid seeing rock at 12 o’clock. … Ah, yeah, look at this. I swear to God, they wouldn’t pay me if they knew how much fun this was. …

Hammer: Well, this, ah, row of mountains off to our left – I mean, it doesn’t get much lower than about 14,000 the whole length of it, at least not till the edge of my map.

English: OK. Well, let’s kind of look and see if we’ve got anywhere we can pick our way through. … Yeah, if we have to go to 14 for just a second it won’t be too bad. …

Hammer: Boy, it’s a good thing we’re not too heavy today, I guess. …

English: Come on, baby, come on, baby, you can make it.

Rowe: OK, you guys are gonna make this, right?

English: Yeah, I’m hopin’. …

(Stall warning tone; single beep.)

Rowe: Got a way out?

English: Yeah. We, we can do a 180 up in here. …

Hammer: Yeah, let’s turn around.

English: Yeah, drop a quarter flaps.

Rowe: Yeah, you need to, ah, make a decision.

(Sound of heavy breathing starts.)

English: God (expletive.)

Rowe: Hundred, 90 knots – call off his airspeed for him.

(Stall warning tone; continues until end.)

English: Ah, (expletive).

Rowe: Call it off. Help him out. Call off his airspeed for him.

Hammer: You got 95; 95.

English: Oh, God. Oh, (expletive).

Rowe: We’re goin’ down.

Unidentified voice: God.

Unidentified voice: God.

The recording ends as the plane hits a mountain, killing all six occupants.




The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary, Sunday,

Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart: I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important?

I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.

Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are.

If this is what it means to be no longer young, it's not so bad.

Next confession:
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it.. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu
. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that
America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution, and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him?

I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too.

But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the
America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this Happen?" (regarding Katrina)

Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.

And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school . the Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell.