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I-Team Report: Contract Combatants

March 18, 2010 4:25:54 AM PDT
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government has contracted to hire thousands of local residents as security guards. But what happens when those American-paid employees are also combatants?

Marine Lance Corporal Josh Birchfield found out the answer to that question. The northwest Indiana native was shot and killed by a contract combatant last month in Afghanistan.

A member of Congress from suburban Chicago wants to put a stop to the use of local security contractors in war zones - a move that would come too late for Josh Birchfield.

Our story begins at the end in a rural Indiana cemetery where Joshua Birchfield's headstone hasn't arrived yet. But there's no mistaking it as the Marine's final resting place after a funeral attended by a thousand people last month who mourned what the Pentagon was simply calling a combat death.

We now know there was more to it - a hidden danger - when Josh Birchfield's patrol squad marched off on a mission before sunrise on February 19.

At daybreak, Lance Corporal Birchfield and the Marines had taken up positions in a dry river bed in the Farah province when they came under fire.

According to military investigative reports obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act, after they "received small arms fire," the Marine's spotted an "l-n or local national contractor on the roof." It was at a security checkpoint where local Afghan police and security contractors inspect vehicles and drivers for bombs and weapons.

The Marines are not allowed to return fire in that kind of situation, knowing that they were under attack by U.S. government-paid Afghan contractors. So, according to the reports, they "activated red, white and green flares" signaling they were U.S. Marines and "the contractors ceased fire." But not before Birchfield suffered a fatal "gunshot wound the head," casualty type listed as "hostile."

"These contractors often operate in the shadows without a clear chain of command," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, (D) Illinois.

North suburban congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is co-sponsoring legislation to curtail private contractors, who now make up an estimated 30 percent of the armed forces in Afghanistan.

"If you ask the question, 'can they get away with murder?' The answer is yes," said Rep. Schakowsky.

Marine witnesses told military police that the guards who opened fire on them, killing Lance Corporal Birchfield, had been using opium at the time. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that investigators seized a 5 oz. bag of opium from the guard post.

There was nothing about drugs apparent in the Marine investigative report. However, numerous pieces of information were redacted, including several large chunks of the documents.

E-mails to the I-Team from the base where Birchfield worked suggest that some private contractors have dual allegiance to their jobs and to the Taliban.

The contract guard who killed Birchfield will not be held as an American prisoner or even prosecuted by the U.S. After questioning the local national contractor who fired at the squad, Marine officials turned him over to Afghan prosecutors for their own "criminal proceedings."

"At what point do we say, this is simply not worth it, to have these hired guns, to have these mercenary companies out there, these for profit business who we have become so dependent on that it is almost impossible for us to conduct war without them, and yet they are hidden from public view," said Rep. Schakowsky.

A congressional research service report in December was critical of lax contractor oversight by the U.S. The report questioned whether "contractors can undermine U.S. Efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan."

In Westville Indiana where Josh Birchfield grew up, his family received a military briefing Tuesday about the circumstances of his death but for the close community of 2,100 people, he was killed in combat. Period.

Click here to read a summary of the attack


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