What comes to mind when you hear the term “military contractor?” Years ago, I would have thought first about Blackwater in the waning years of the second Iraq war. Heavily armed civilian bully-boys who were making the big bucks after completing their enlistments in the real military. Then a young relative of mine became a civilian military contractor in Afghanistan after his second tour in the Air Force (both in Afghanistan). He was far from being a gunman. He was doing his old Air Force job, which was warehousing aviation fuel and getting trucks full of it where they needed to be. He did that for years, and he made very good money. He left that job for another one that offered about the same money, more travel, and less gut-crunching terror. When I thought about it, I realized that skills of shipping, computerized record keeping, and communications, were involved. “Military logistics” would be a good description.
That’s the way that I found out that a large number of ex-military Americans are employed at civilian jobs that support our military efforts around the world. They do a little bit of everything. Many of them still carry guns that they may someday have to use, but most seem to do more mundane things, like install and de-bug computer systems; drive trucks; install plumbing; construct barracks; or instruct locals in how to best serve the needs of the American military bases in their countries.
I traveled to California last year, and I spent a few hours sitting in a large “lounge” area at the airport in Taipei waiting for my flight to LAX. I usually get some reading done in those situations, getting up for a walk every now and again to stretch my legs a bit. On this occasion I was sitting very close to a few men who had obviously known each other for a very long time. Listening to their conversation was fascinating.
There were three of them, and they had all retired from the U.S. Navy. Two were white, and both of them had been Chief Petty Officers of some kind, I never caught the rating. The third man was a Filipino. He had been a Petty Officer himself. His rating in the Navy was commissaryman (cook), but I got no indication that that was still his trade. That last bit is very typical for the Navy of my period. I was only a couple of years older than these guys, and I had been in the Navy myself while we were all young. Even then, in the mid- to late-1960s, most black or Filipino sailors were directed to ratings having to do with food service.
The Flip always heartily agreed with the other men, fairer to say that they all always agreed. Judging by his accent, he might have been born in California. Either way, he was definitely on the team. He was, in fact, wearing an American flag t-shirt.
The two white guys were both sixty-six years old. The subject of age had come up while they were discussing their heart attacks and the various procedures that they had endured to keep them alive. They seemed to think that it had all been very funny, so much so that I wondered if they were really so cavalier about those near-death experiences or if they were “whistling past the graveyard,” laughing to forget the horror of it. They were both rather overweight; the Flip was not. The Flip had no history of medical trouble at all to report. There is a lesson there.
One of the white guys was nicknamed, “Guppy.”
All of them were returning home to America after a twenty-four-day assignment at the old Subic Bay Naval Base. It sounded like they were frequently sent to Subic Bay. Their employer kept them busy alternating assignments ranging from a few weeks to a month or so with a similar amount of time to hang out at home.
Their conversation had the same kind of high-energy jocularity that is common to much younger men in the armed forces. They appeared to be having great fun talking about whatever subject came before them. Second and third wives were an entertaining subject, and they all seemed to know each of the multiple wives for each other. There was talk of who had been “trading-up,” and a bit of who had been lucky to get rid of a certain woman. I found it odd that no children were ever mentioned, adult or otherwise.
They also joked somewhat ruefully about the nature of their assignments. Living quarters were not always luxurious, being on many occasions simple tents. Same for the food. The locals were a fit subject for complaining. They were often a bunch of thieves whose favorite thing in the world was, “taking advantage of Americans.” The locals could be trusted to steal any tools that were not carefully secured, and nothing was safe from their predations. “Remember that time somebody got into your tent while you were sleeping and stole your shoes?” They then marveled at how good a thief the guy was. “He even got the tent-zipper back up without waking me.”
These three were hale fellows, well met, in spite of being a bit rough around the edges. I’m sure that they had no trouble at all getting along with anyone that they worked with at their various destinations. They were fairly typical American men, and there’s still a lot that’s appealing about that. I’m pretty sure that these guys worked hard, knew what they were doing, and had long since given up starting fights just for the fun of it. (I would be amazed if they had not engaged in that behavior when they were young men. Like I say, I was in the Navy myself, and I was their contemporary.) I’m sure that they had been hard drinkers at one time too, although now they are almost certainly being more careful on doctors’ orders. Smile, get along, treat people fairly, take your work seriously, these are all traits that the world still associates with Americans.
Not a bad trio of cultural ambassadors, all things considered.