The Pro’s and Con’s to Contracting Overseas
Story and photographs by Robert Spunga * Photographs by Danielle Breteau
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women working overseas on various contracts and making good money, probably two to three times what they can make in the United States. On top of that, they may even be eligible for the foreign earned income exclusion, which in 2018 meant that the first $99,200 of their total income earned overseas was excluded from being taxed at the Federal level (it’s higher for 2019). However – and I can’t emphasize this enough – they are earning it!
While driving through town, even in an armored vehicle, there are many ways insurgents can hide IED’s or other types of explosives. This SUV was the victim of a dead donkey lying on the side of the road. The carcass was used to hide an IED which was detonated as the SUV passed by.
Naturally, the best-paying jobs are in high-threat environments such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. Yes, these places can be dangerous. Since 2001 over 3,300 civilian contractors have been killed, and almost 95,000 were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. The vast majority were third-country nationals, or TCNs, from places like Peru, Colombia, Philippines, Fiji, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and so on. There were thousands of casualties from the US as well. In reality, the odds are that you will not be injured, but you need to be aware that the possibility certainly does exist.
On the other hand, there are thousands of jobs in less risky places such as Kuwait, Qatar, India, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Antarctica (no kidding! – there are actually waiting lists) and South America. It all depends on your skills, your sense of adventure and what you are willing to put up with.
It is not uncommon to share a small space. Be prepared for this possibility.
As an overseas contractor you are often working in “austere environments.” This can range from living in a large tent with 15 other people and eating MREs (meal ready to eat) all the way up to enjoying individual rooms with a private bathroom, Internet, satellite television and access to gymnasiums, movie theaters, tennis courts and well-run dining facilities. It all depends on the company you are working for and where the contract is being performed.
Sometimes living conditions are clean and neat, while other may only offer tents, and holes dug in the ground for human waste. Each contract or job offers different benefits.
Let’s talk about the pay. Again, this is all dependent upon where you are working, what you are doing, how long you are expected to be away from home and the living conditions. Generally, as a contractor you can expect that your living accommodations and food will be included as part of the deal. Pay can be as low as $15 per hour for unskilled labor or simple administrative functions. But remember, this is usually based on a 12-hour day and six days per week. That works out to $1,080 per week, $5,400 per month. Not bad for those who have very few skills, plus there isn’t much in the way of expenses to pay either. At the other end of the spectrum, there are contracts currently paying more than $1,800 per day! Do the math and you can see that that is a butt-load of cash. However, you need very special skills and experience, plus there is probably a very high risk of being seriously injured, captured by bad guys and having to wear those unflattering orange jumpsuits, and/or killed. Is the risk worth it to you and your family?
This is an example of a food hall set up just for the American and european staff. These are often operated by area locals and with from the immediate area.
Getting a job and how much you can earn comes down to several things:
What documented skills you have?
Whether or not you have or can obtain a security clearance;
What you are willing to put up with?
Were you in the military? If so, what was your MOS or occupation specialty? If you were in combat arms, were you in special operations, a grunt infantryman, military police, sniper, artillery? What about military aviation – pilot, jet engine mechanic, helicopter crewman? How about a background in intelligence – analyst, collection specialist, interrogator, translator? There is also combat engineer – plumbers, machinists, surveyors, draftsman, masons, and carpenters. Similarly, logisticians are highly desired – warehouseman, inventory specialist, shipping, motor pool, etc. You get the picture. Almost anything you did while in the military is desired by contractors.
But what if you were never in the military? Not to worry. If you were in law enforcement (preferably some form of SWAT) and there is a verifiable record of that, there are many options, especially if you are looking for security positions.
The Kabul international airport in 2005.
Almost any job you can think of can be found overseas, but companies are going to need proof that you can do what you say you can. This is mostly due to liability potentials, not to mention the company does not want to hire someone and pay for their travel, only to find out after a few weeks that they are not what they originally claimed to be. There are enough posers out there – don’t be one because you will be exposed eventually!
Security clearances are huge, especially with government contracts. At a minimum you will have to be able to pass a basic background check. One of the biggest disqualifiers is heavy debt. Why? The thinking goes, if you owe a great deal of money, you will be more likely to be tempted by bribes. Yes, it doesn’t make sense because you want to get the money to pay off those debts but then they won’t hire you. It has never been said that government logic makes any sense.
An arms dealer on Chicken Street in Kabul Afghanistan. This guy sells everything from historical replicas to AK47’s. Talk about freedom to bear arms! No laws. Anyone can buy one, have one and walk with one. These sites are common.
Now, pay attention because this one is important: Do not lie on the forms. Let me say it again: do not lie on the forms. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The investigators will find out. Don’t be embarrassed. The investigators have seen everything before. They also know that no one is perfect and that we humans all make bad decisions at some point in our lives. If you have a reasonable explanation of why you were arrested 15 years ago for indecent exposure/urinating in public, just tell them what happened. (“I was drunk, came out of a bar at 2 in the morning, and peed against the door of another car thinking it would be funny. Unfortunately, the officers sitting in that unmarked car failed to see the humor of the situation!”) We’ve all done stupid stuff.
A square in Baghdad, Iraq, which are common often highly ornate.
Of course, there is no guarantee that you will receive the clearance, but if they find out something that you didn’t disclose, that is an almost automatic disqualification. Even if the job doesn’t require a security clearance, any legitimate company is going to run a background check prior to employment.
Dead Foot Arms
The view from inside an armored personnel carrier. It’s embarrassing to think this sign was necessary.
It is also highly advisable to clean up your Facebook account and any other social media sites where you have posted pictures and information. Those hilarious photos of you passed out at a party next to the toilet in a pool of vomit may invoke wonderful warm memories for you, but your future employer isn’t going to look at them in exactly the same light. Or you could just put some strict privacy settings in place. However, in the long run, it is probably better to do a good scrub of your life on the Internet. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to dig up information about someone online.
What are you willing to put up with? Can you live in a tent with a bunch of other guys in a remote, hot, dusty location for weeks on end, peeing in bottles or sharing a drafty wooden outhouse, enduring occasional rocket and mortar attacks and eating only military rations or local food?
Can you work with people from foreign cultures who are very strange to you? How about personal space? Again, the idea of personal space is different in every culture. Some of these folks will stand right up next to you while they talk. If you keep backing away they are going to think something is wrong and be offended.
The hygiene conditions in Afghanistan and many other countries in southwest Asia and the Middle East, are often not the same as western civilizations. Even if the meat and vegetables are in good condition, a westerner may still need several months for their bodies to efficiently handle these foods.
Personal hygiene is also different. Many people around the world don’t bath nearly as often as Americans and have some pretty strong body odors. And even if they are clean, they may smell different due to the foods they eat. You also may or may not be allowed to talk to the local women. What is a common occurrence in America may be highly insulting to other cultures, such as exposing the bottom of your shoe when crossing your legs.
Do your homework about where you want to work and decide what you can and cannot tolerate. Remember, you are in other people’s country, and as the old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
A common site in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. Sheep herders moving their flocks through traffic and across town to better grazing areas.
How about the hours? Many overseas contracts expect a 72-hour work week. Yes, you read correctly: a 72-hour work week, usually 12 hours per day, six days per week. Some might have you work every day of the week for 30 or more days before you are given a few days break. Contracts pay well, but they expect you to work hard. You will be away from home, meaning away from family and friends for months on end. Can your marriage survive that? What about your kids? Then again, some couples without children or who have an empty nest can double their income with both husbands and wives earning money by working on the same contract. This is an excellent way to quickly build a retirement nest egg.
Danielle Breteau, former executive editor for the American Shooting Journal, spent 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Jordan as high threat protection specialist, not only for the US Embassy but also other government and private agencies. She is just one example of the diversity you can find in these environments.
All high-threat protection personnel have to be proficient with a wide array of firearms. Here, Danielle Breteau helps a fellow teammate shoot the 249SAW.
You have to have thick skin and a high tolerance for huge egos, and general stupidity because you will run into a lot of that. You may have supervisors who you think are complete morons, and they may very well be. They may only be a supervisor because they have been there longer than you. However, they may also have some reason to enforce a policy, which, while not making any sense to anyone on the ground, makes perfect sense back at corporate headquarters, so the supervisor has no choice but to push it down. Hopefully, they argued the point, but most likely they just rolled over and implemented the new guidance from HQ without so much as a whimper because they want to keep their job. If you really don’t like working for a company, and especially if you think they are asking you to do something illegal or unsafe, start looking for another company to work for. Be fair warned, though: The grass may look greener on the other side, but when you jump that fence, you may find that’s only due to an overwhelming amount of BS.
Overseas contracting is not for everyone. However, it will give you the chance to make pretty good money, you will see and experience things and places you probably never would otherwise, make some great friends, probably meet some people who you will hate for the rest of your life, and give you some bragging rights with the folks back home. Like many things in our lives, it is all up to you and how you make the best of it. Take advantage of the opportunities, get some experience to put on your resume, and have a good time. Always keep a sense of humor. It will be an adventure. But remember the old saying: “Adventure is never fun while it is happening!”
Good luck! AmSJ
Posted in Editor's Blog Tagged with: afghanistan, High Threat Protection, Iraq, Kuwait, Middle East, Personal Protection, Protective Detail, Security
[su_heading size=”30″ margin=”0″]Female Security Contractors [/su_heading]
Story by Danielle Breteau • Photographs by John Oliver
There are thousands of security contractors operating in high-threat environments and within that group there are a handful of women. They sport the same body armor and equipment, have to uphold the same physical requirements and are expected, by their male peers, to do the exact same work – protect people from danger, up to and including losing their own life.
On the subject of whether women should be in elite military forces, the jury is still out; however females in high-level close protection who cover a range of clients from foreign dignitaries and ambassadors to government and corporate employees and their international guests are holding their own. They are widely accepted within the elite cadre of close-protection specialists and have a significant role to play. The average current ratio is one woman to one hundred men, but it is growing.
Women in high-threat security is not a myth, and they can be found in some of the most austere environments. They are expected to protect their charges with the same strength, stamina and tactical capabilities as their male counterparts.
In high-threat protection, the primary role is to avoid conflict. This requires a thinking approach. Forethought, flexibility, contingency planning and the ability to seamlessly make changes on the move are paramount. One cannot passively wait for an event to occur and then try to come up with a solution – not well, anyway. This proactive form of protection is all in the training and preparation. Male or female, everyone must be on constant alert and in top physical condition.
“That’s not a girl, that’s Dani, she doesn’t count.”
While there aren’t many women in these roles, they are around and they are awesome in their own right. You’ll find an array of backgrounds as equally diverse as with the men. What sets these women apart is obvious: they stand out in the crowd amongst their peers; they don’t blindly follow expectations; and have taken their own paths. This alone says a great deal for the personality, composure and perseverance of the ladies in these roles.
The experiences, traumas and tribulations a team will go through together, bonds them. People who have been in the military or high-stress situations together are very familiar with this connection.
Areas such as Kuwait are still considered high-threat areas although this country has stabilized considerably since the Gulf War.
OTHER SECURITY ROLES WOMEN CAN PLAY
While high-threat protection is its own category of security, and is often titled as such based on the austere locations and level of threat in an area, there are many other possibilities where women can and do excel in protective security roles. Positions such as executive and family protection are at the top of the list, especially for clients looking for a low-profile signature. Most executives and dignitaries comport themselves in a low-key, quiet manner and prefer to remain under the radar. In contrast, these people differ from, say, music celebrities, whose requirement is to be seen and recognized, as well as protected. The protection professional in this case is up front, easily identifiable, often physically large and may even wear a shirt that says security.
The term ‘high-threat’ is an allocation for areas in the world set by the United States. This designation determines all sorts of factors from the type of gear one might be issued, to protocol and even pay rate.
Protection is not only about physical protection, but also about avoiding unpleasant issues or any number of troubling matters one can encounter throughout the day. Women can offer not only a security element, but the appearance of an assistant or administrator who can blend easily into the background, allowing for an excellent vantage point to watch over the client. Oftentimes, women readily offer the ability to deftly mitigate a negative situation simply via, potentially, a naturally disarming presence.
High-income families commonly need a discrete signature. A large male bodybuilder-type following a woman and her children around may not be desirable. In this instance it would be much easier for a woman the blend in.
POSSIBILITIES FOR WOMEN IN PROTECTIVE SECURITY
Often when considering protective personnel, the preference is that the candidate comes from either a law-enforcement or military background; however that isn’t always necessary. There are quite a few reputable companies, like Gavin de Becker or government agencies such as the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security that train and hire their own candidates. This is not a comprehensive list and research on your own will open up all sorts of possibilities.
Major corporations, the entertainment industry, government subcontractors and the United Nations usually require previous and extensive background in protective services, which can be obtained by some of the examples above, but there are schools specifically designed to certify people for personal protection. The level of threat will dictate the requirement.
I have been in protective security and dispatched to numerous locations in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and South America over the last 14 years. My initial background was founded in law enforcement where I was on a SWAT team. In each location I worked with all facets of former military personnel to include Special Forces, Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, Marine Recon and others. Once integrated into a team, I found that teamates, after their initial discomfort, accept me as one of their own. I have always taken this as the ultimate compliment. I also made a point to never complain, make sure I was squared away and helped anyone I could.
As the designated M249 SAW gunner, I was expected to handle, keep and maintain the SAW along with my other weapons. There is no special treatment for women in high threat nor should there be.
A teammate once told me a story of his wife’s jealous reaction when she saw a photo of his team in Baghdad. She noticed and was upset that there was a female amongst the men. My colleague, immediately confused, asked “Where?” When his wife pointed at my image, he laughed and said, “That’s not a girl, that’s Dani, she doesn’t count.” I saw this comment as his acceptance of me in the team. I have always been proud of working with these men and have remained bonded buddies with almost all of them over the years.
Once a capable woman has established herself within a team that functions cohesively, the gender lines blur.
complete honesty, I tend to judge females coming into these roles possibly more harshly than men do. The last thing I want is the wrong type of woman stepping into these roles with their high mental and physical requirements. A female, or anyone for that matter, who cannot handle critical-thinking situations, is a whiner, cannot tough it out and make the mission work by putting aside their needs for the benefit of the team does not deserve to be there, in my opinion. Women are expected to be a burden to these teams, therefore, it is imperative that they aren’t. I am proud to say that I was the first female qualified as a tactical commander on a world-renowned high-threat contract and followed it up by becoming the first female shift leader to lead a team of men on a high-threat contract. I have no tolerance for someone who plays in a role they are not qualified to handle. That may sound harsh, but I feel that any woman who works in these positions needs to be a role model to their team and future women.
I hold on strongly to my femininity, take great pleasure in being a proper girl and have the bows and dresses to prove it – my husband approves – however, working in austere and dangerous locations requires constant focus and clear thinking. Not only are the lives of our clients in our hands, but also those of our teammates. All the women I have had the honor to work with are a different breed. We take our roles seriously and often work harder than our male peers just to be accepted, yet we still manage to remain feminine – and bake a mean batch of cookies.♠
Gear, clothing, weapon options and appearance can change daily depending on the client, the venue and the mission.
Posted in Women and guns Tagged with: Danielle Breteau, Gavin De Becker, High Threat Protection, Private security, Security Contractors, State Department, Women and guns, Women security contractors