THE MAGAZINE

Staging Security in a Theater of War

By Scott Ast, CPP

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.

Prepare.
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.

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