When the work fordries up, it’s hard for many of them to let go.
Chapter 1 Soldier X spent 15 years on the Circuit, the lucrative world of the private soldier, which took him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Israel, Dubai and Lebanon. He finally left that world behind a year ago, and took a senior role in a non-governmental organisation in Europe.
Since he left New Zealand in 2003, he thinks he’s spent a total of about four months in this country. “There’s so much to see and do,” he explains. “If I am not on the job, I am scuba diving in the Red Sea or paragliding in the Mediterranean.”
He tells two anecdotes to illustrate the discord between everyday life and his extraordinary existence. He was on a flight to Auckland from Dubai when the elderly lady next to him asked where he’d been and what he’d been doing. Negotiating with Northern Alliance warlords in Afghanistan, he said. She refused to speak to him for the remainder of the flight.
Another time, he was in a lift in a Dubai hotel, still in the garb of an Afghan tribesman. An Australian couple got in and greeted him. Too tired to make conversation, he responded in Pashtun, leaving them to assume he was a local.
Nobody he grew up with, he says, can relate to his life. They are all farmers, doctors, lawyers, accountants.
“We have nothing in common now.”
Politely, he declines to talk about his personal life and family. But he looks at the civilian world, he says, and thinks:
Soldier X understands the chemical reaction that kept him coming back for more.
“You always look for the new high, to continue the drug metaphor. Some guys were driven financially. For me, it was never that - I was happy to go into lower-paid jobs if it meant a new environment and the job was really challenging.”
Lillian Tahuri, who worked in private military contracting (PMC) in Afghanistan, could see her colleagues’ motivations clearly. Some were driven by money, but others “loved it, were addicted to it - they would never stop doing it. It’s their whole life, and it comes first.”
After shifting from Baghdad, where he survived two IED explosions, Soldier Y moved to the more sedate southern Iraqi oilfields in Basra. He was quickly bored.
It’s that adrenaline buzz of action and adventure that drives the repeat passengers on the circuit, says psychologist Ian de Terte.
The highs they experience are much higher than ours. But their lows can be lower.
Over time, they struggle more and more to cope with the difference between the zenith and the nadir.
Returning to the mundanity and boredom of regular life, says de Terte, is about slowly “flattening the graph out” so that real life can be tolerable.
After rescuing a European woman and her kids from captivity in Sudan, former tank soldier Marc Parsons picked up a few more short-term gigs - escorting a journalist into Beirut during the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict of 2006, a month in Iraq guarding the interior of the Iraqi electoral office and discovering that what he saw on CNN and what he saw through the window didn’t match up.
Then, at 32, he decided he should “settle down and live a normal life”.
“Life is on hold there - it’s not really living. You can go on a bit of a holiday, but then you’re back into it.”
Parsons found it hard to adapt to regular life, but for different reasons. He studied for an MBA, but even armed with that qualification, he was unable to break into the corporate world. After 100 job interviews, he was forced to return to the military, working as a civilian administrator, where he says former colleagues still in uniform would shun him.
After four years, he finally found work in the insurance industry as a continuous improvement specialist. He believes the combination of army experience and the initiative required to be successful as a private contractor means those who’ve been on the Circuit have a rich and unusual skillset that goes unregarded in the civilian world.
He’s now operating a weddings business at his beautiful rural property south of Auckland, complete with four hectares of grounds.
“Yes, I miss the army still. I hated the army, and I loved the army,” he says.
“Do I miss [the Circuit]? I guess every husband misses the freedom of doing what you want. I love my son, but I hate being a parent.”
He has one former colleague who misses it every day:
Soldier Y who has been to Iraq, the Gulf and Papua New Guinea, would walk the streets of his home town, and feel separated from the average punter. “You would watch people go about their business, and think ‘these people don’t know what’s going on around the world’,” he says.
When people get too interested in what he does for a living, he clams up. He keeps the worst stories of his time in the most dangerous troublespots from his wife until after he’s returned home.
Now in a safer management role, he thinks he’s got another five years left on the Circuit, time to pay off his mortgage. After that, he’s realistic.
“At some stage, I’d pull the pin on the offshore security industry and find a real job - but I am struggling to work out what that would be.
“I know I will have to start again, and that’s alright, I’m fine with that. I don’t think it will translate into anything immediate back in the real world. I get that. But I want to do something that will keep me enthused.”
Surrounded by memorial tombstones, Monty Gurnick Jr, who was in Iraq and Afghanistan, still waits for the phone to ring. His PMC career petered out on the island of Nauru, as a guard at a detention centre. “That’s five years I’ll never get back,” he mutters.
“I find it hard,” he concedes. “I am still not ready to come home.
His dad, Monty Sr - who went to Afghanistan - demurs, asking about his son’s children and the years he missed with them. Monty Jr acknowledges that. But asked if normal life is less exciting, he says: “Yeah it is. You felt you were over there helping. It felt good to be over there and be part of something. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy. But it’s not me. It isn’t sitting behind a desk and waiting for clientele to come in...”
He’s never given up on the Circuit.
Monique Ford and Joe Johnson