Soldier of Misfortune
Three years ago, Paul Reuben went off to Iraq—not as a member of the U.S. military, but as a highly paid private security guard. after he was captured by Iraqi insurgents, his family realized the true cost of that decision.
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Patrick REUBEN was asleep on his couch when the phone rang. It was a Thursday afternoon, and Reuben was at home in New Richmond, Wisconsin, fighting the tail end of a staph infection that had spread from his leg to his bloodstream. Between the fatigue and the drugs in his system, he was wiped out, and he had to strain to hear what the caller was saying. But two things came across clearly enough. The caller was from the State Department, and he had a question: Did Patrick know where his brother was?
It was November 16, 2006, and Patrick’s twin brother, Paul Reuben, was supposed to be on his way home to Minnesota from Iraq, where he had been working as a guard for a private security company. Five days earlier, in fact, Paul had called his brother’s house and spoken to Patrick’s wife, Jen. He said that it was time to get out. He was quitting the security job. He was finally coming home.
Jen expected Paul to be happy, or at least relieved. But Paul, normally so lighthearted and irreverent, didn’t sound relieved. He sounded spooked. That morning, a man wearing an Iraqi police uniform had looked him in the eye and vowed to kill him.
“Paul, you have to get out of there,” Jen told him.
Paul didn’t disagree. “I love you guys, I love you guys,” he told Jen, before adding: “I’m sorry for anything I ever did.”
But that was almost a week ago. Patrick had wondered why Paul hadn’t turned up already, but he’d been too sick to call and ask why. Now, on the phone, the man from the State Department offered an explanation.
“We think he’s been kidnapped,” he said.
And that was it. The official offered no other information. Not where it had happened. Not how. Not why. All he said was that someone would be in touch. Patrick hung up the phone and turned to Jen.
“So what do we do now?”
IF PAUL REUBEN had been an active member of the U.S. military, Patrick probably wouldn’t have even have had time to ponder the question. For one thing, he would have been contacted immediately by someone to explain what had happened. Then, a whole network—a system of helpers, counselors, and liaisons empowered by the vast resources of the government—would swing into action on the family’s behalf.
But Paul Reuben wasn’t a member of the military when he was captured. He worked for a private security contractor, which meant that in the eyes of that government, he was little better than a hired gun. There was no network. In fact, it took Patrick the rest of the night just to figure out how to contact Crescent Security Group, the Kuwaiti company Paul had been working for in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, there were other things to worry about. Jen and Patrick realized that Paul’s twin teenage daughters, Bree and Casey, hadn’t yet heard the news, and they could end up hearing about their dad’s abduction via television. The couple called the girls’ house in Andover, hoping Paul’s ex-wife, Kathy, would pick up. No such luck. The girls were hanging around in expectation of Paul’s return. They called Kathy at work to tell her the news.
Kathy raced home. When she arrived, a fake smile plastered on her face, she announced she was taking the girls out to dinner. She hoped that by the time the family got back from the restaurant, there would be some solid information, something to calm their fears. Instead, they returned to a message on their answering machine. Kathy’s sister had just received a call from Good Morning America. The twins moved toward the TV, but Kathy stopped them. “Girls, I have something to tell you.”
In New Richmond, news trucks began pulling up outside Jen and Patrick’s house. The couple huddled inside, too scared to go out and give reporters the sound bite that might make them go away. The State Department official had cautioned Patrick not to talk to the media. The government didn’t know who Paul’s captors were. If they were religious extremists, the family might inadvertently say something to offend them.
On CNN, the story looped endlessly. Every few minutes, a picture of Paul’s round, smiling face flashed on screen. For a while, Bree and Casey called Patrick every time the anchors mentioned torture. But mostly, the family just watched and worried, hour after hour, until long past dawn. In the morning, they figured, someone would surely call and tell them what happened in situations like these: what they needed to do next; what they could do to help get Paul home. But the call never came.
HE WAS pretty typical, really. Paul Reuben was in Iraq because his life was in a holding pattern. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the work there. He did: the camaraderie, the adrenaline. But the truth is that, like the other men he worked with, he never would have ended up 6,000 miles from home if his life hadn’t veered off course. “They’re all there because they’re at a point in their lives where they have issues,” says Jen Reuben.
Patrick and Paul grew up in south Minneapolis, sons of a UPS driver. Patrick was actually born first, though it was the last time he did anything first, he likes to joke. “After that, I was the follower,” he says.
The boys’ mother had always encouraged them to go into the military, and after graduating from Roosevelt High School, both Reuben boys joined the Marines, mostly because they figured it to be the most challenging branch of the service (though the closest either got to combat was the two weeks Paul’s reserve unit was called up during the first Gulf War; the fighting was over before he left Camp Lejeune in North Carolina).
In 1994, Paul got hired as a police officer in St. Louis Park, a job that, while hardly making him rich, afforded him a little rambler in the suburbs and some expensive toys: a snowmobile, a motorcycle. Outgoing and garrulous, Paul was a charmer who could make friends almost anywhere he went. But he was also a drinker. And while he managed to keep his job through one drunk-driving episode, a second incident, in 2003, cost him his badge. By then, his marriage to Kathy had ended (though the two were still living together), and he found it difficult to pay his bills and child support—let alone to spoil his daughters the way he liked—on the money he made doing the odd jobs he was able to land. Iraq was the answer to his financial woes. It was also an escape.
It was actually Patrick who first heard about the gig, from a childhood friend who’d worked over there. When he learned how much private security guards were getting paid in Iraq, he knew Paul would be interested. Besides the financial benefits, Paul had enjoyed being a Marine. “He liked the idea,” says Patrick. “He was trained. He had specialized skills. He was good at it.”
He also wasn’t unique. As of this year, there are as many private contractors in Iraq—about 130,000—as there are American troops. Most of those civilians perform the same jobs they did at home, everything from catering to bridge-building. But approximately 30,000 are like Paul, working for companies under contract with the U.S. government to perform some of the war’s most dangerous jobs: providing security to civilians, supplies, and even, at times, uniformed soldiers.
The outsourcing of duties once performed by the military has been one of the most controversial aspects of the war.
Private security firms operate on the margins of both U.S. and Iraqi law, and while some of the guards employed by the firms have extensive experience (the most sought after are veterans of elite branches of the military), many do not. The contractors earn anywhere from $600 to $1,200 a day, a fortune compared their counterparts in the military, but not always a good deal. Many lack the benefits the armed forces provide, despite performing a potentially deadly array of duties.
There are no hard numbers on how many private guards have been killed or how many Iraqis have died at their hands, but it’s safe to say both tallies are in the thousands. In the most notorious incident, in September 2007, guards from the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. A month later, the FBI reported that at least 14 of the 17 victims had been killed without justification. Five of the Blackwater guards involved in the incident are now facing manslaughter charges in federal court.
After he decided to go, Reuben signed on with a British security company, but it folded not long after he arrived in the Middle East. He then got a job with another company, Securiforce, but was eventually laid off. In early 2006, Reuben went to work for Crescent Security Group. Headquartered in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Crescent was owned by Franco Picco, an Italian businessman who got into the security business to protect the trucks that supplied the food concessions he ran at military bases inside Iraq.
Within the security industry, Crescent had a reputation as a bottom-feeder. It was known for taking on especially risky jobs, cutting corners, and skirting the rules. It also didn’t pay as well as the first two outfits Reuben worked for. Even so, Reuben felt he had little choice but to stick it out with the company. He told his family that he wanted to stay in Iraq long enough to earn money for a down payment on a house, to buy a Hummer, and to get his daughters Gucci watches. Beyond that, he had no idea what he’d do with the rest of his life. Even marrying a second time, just before he first left for Iraq, had little effect. Relatives say he and his second wife fought so much that he often talked about divorce. On his periodic visits home, he would ask Jen and Patrick if he could move in with them. He even talked about getting back together with his first wife, Kathy. He could never make a decision, though. Each time, he just went back to Iraq.