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(Q) What Is a Civilian Contractor? 


Throughout history, military forces have depended on civilian contractors of one sort or another to give their military personnel flexibility or to fulfill logistical and support functions that soldiers did not need to do.

In ancient and medieval history up until at least the 1600s, it was not unusual to depend on armies made up primarily of civilian support. George Washington’s Continental Army depended on civilians for a variety of support roles: transportation, carpentry, engineering, food and medicine. These were logistical functions, considered either menial or too specialized to expect soldiers to do them. Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette was one of the first Military Contractors in the US. In 1777, he purchased a ship, and with a crew of adventurers set sail for America to fight in the American Revolution against British colonial rule.

The Marquis de Lafayette joined the Revolutionary Army as a major general and was assigned to the staff of George Washington. He served with distinction, leading American forces to several victories. Upon his return home to France, he worked closely with US Ambassadors Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Even after technically leaving the service of the United States, he continued to work in its interests.

Logistical, combat and diplomatic functions like this have been the domain of civilian contractors ever since, up through the Vietnam Conflict and today. Often, the contractors hired were locals, people who could be counted upon to know the area, the local foodstuffs, and to be able to find the proper resources for military needs. Other times, they were brought in from the United States, just as the soldiers were.

 

THE VIETNAM WAR: A CHANGE OF PHILOSOPHY
In Vietnam, there was a significant and basic change in the way the military treated civilian contractors. Business Week, in March 1965, called it a “war by contract.” This was largely because standard military equipment was suddenly technologically advanced, while the average soldier had little technical training besides basic combat skills. There was suddenly a serious need for civilian contractors with specialized skills to work side by side with the troops. Field maintenance crews with companies like General Electric or Johnson, Drake, and Piper dodged bullets at DaNang and Pleiku to maintain and repair field equipment and infrastructure for troops, who desperately needed them. Instead of being kept safely behind military lines, Civilian Contractors were working side by side in the field with the soldiers they were supporting.

Before the war even started, Air America was field-lifting supplies behind enemy lines to covert US Special Forces operatives who were training the CIA formed South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Food, supplies, weapons, intelligence and transportation would have been impossible to access without Air America pilots and Civilian Contractor ground crews who were maintaining Air America’s airplanes and helicopters. The U.S. was still not yet officially involved in the Vietnam conflict, and to commit American military planes and soldiers would have caused the international incident that the U.S. was trying to avoid at the time.

The men and women working behind enemy lines out of uniform were a unique breed. Some were ex-military, or ex-CIA, with the training necessary to perform covert operations. Others were young men (few women) who were moved by high salaries, or by a taste for adventure, and even by patriotism or idealism.

When the war ended, some ex-civilian contractors entered the CIA or other US military or paramilitary service afterward; others went on into private life, often finding successful careers. One ex-civilian contractor went on to run a large branch of Goodwill Industries International on the Pacific Rim, successfully transforming his experience with Asian culture into an executive job after he made millions starting and running a 400-employee company in San Francisco. There were numerous other civilian contractors at this time, almost all working for the same companies that built U.S. army electronics or field equipment. These companies and contractors included General Electric, branches of AT&T, Johnson, Drake and Piper, and even Michigan State University.

 

PRIVATE CONTRACTORS TODAY
The temptation of a high-paying overseas job today and the poor job market for former military personnel has made the prospect of becoming a High Paid International Civilian Contractor irresistible to many people. It’s currently estimated by the Brookings Institute that for every ten military personnel involved in the Iraq war, a contractor is there to maintain equipment or work for the military in some other capacity; because of security concerns, almost every single one is American or from a European Union or NATO member country.

There are dozens of small private military companies and security contractors that provide PSD (Personal Security Detail) teams to high ranking US, European and Iraqi officials, or escort supply convoys through the dangerous “Mad Max” highways of Iraq; these are most frequently the men who die at the hands of insurgents.

Today, the U.S. military relies on Civilian Contractors to maintain 28% of its weapon systems. Ideally, they would like to use contractors to maintain 50%. Military contracting today appears to be a real growth industry, particularly for those with the skills necessary to work with the US Military. R&R is more likely to be in Dubai or Bangkok (like their Vietnam Civilian Contractor predecessors) and salaries are sky-high. Special-forces-trained Security Operators make over a thousand dollars a day; more than ten times the wage of enlisted equivalents; but even a Bus Driver makes eighty thousand dollars a year tax-free, and companies are starting to offer juicy incentives like profit sharing.

Whatever else can be said, this much is true: as long as the US military has bases overseas or are involved in peacekeeping with the UN, Companies will always be hungry for qualified workers, and the workers will always be hungry for the high paying jobs and adventure that can only be found working as an International Civilian Contractor.

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Force Protection Manager-Afghanistan
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Matt has been a Civilian Contractor both Domestically and Internationally starting in the 1990’s. He has worked in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia in a variety of fields from IT to Security.