soldiers inc.

Chapter four

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new frontiers

The work of a privately-employed soldier gets more obscure and more far-flung as the large troublespots settle.

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These days, it’s at the heart of his keynote corporate speeches on resilience, health and safety, or teamwork. He also throws in some anecdotes from his experience as being part of a team that has provided security to bands like Metallica and Slipknot.

It’s been long enough that Paul Walsh can find a funny side from being arrested in Tanzania on suspicion of murder.

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Why was a former police sniper from Auckland guarding a gold mine in the north-west Tanzanian district of Kahama?

There came a time on the private military contractor (PMC) circuit where the daily rate in Iraq and Afghanistan began to drop, and the job market became more crowded.

There’s lots of theories: an influx of cheaper Eastern Europeans and South Africans, and an accompanying reluctance from Kiwis to work with those they felt might be less well-trained; the Americans starting to prefer their own nationals, because they had Department of Defence security clearances for sensitive projects; and a declining number of projects as the US beat a managed retreat from both wars.

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Chapter 1
That’s why Marc Parsons went off rescuing hostages in Sudan. Why another Kiwi we will call Soldier Y found himself guarding a pipeline in Papua New Guinea from angry locals. Why Soldier X was piloting a minibus through an under-siege Beirut. And why Paul Walsh found himself the only mzungu - white man - among 103 cellmates in a rural prison.

The new frontier for the men and women of the circuit was gold. Literal gold (and precious metals) in Africa, and ‘liquid gold’ (gas and petroleum) everywhere else.

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Paul Walsh

Walsh understood the equation: the Buzwagi gold mine represented wealth, and the villagers living around it were very poor.

“Everyone wants a job, and not everyone has got a job, and if you haven’t got a job, you are going to come to us because we’ve got access to things like diesel,”

he says.

“There’s a lot of money coming out of the ground and people want a share of it. You get how it works.”

The mine had a 20km boundary, and was poorly-fenced. Where there was a fence, the locals would cut it. They weren’t trying to steal the real gold: they were interested in their form of liquid gold - diesel. It would be stolen from every piece of plant on the site.

“At times, I was literally chasing these lads carrying jerrycans of diesel across this barren landscape ... There were times when they would drop the jerrycans, pull the machete out, and start chasing you instead.”

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Yes, he says, there were plenty of occasions when he asked himself what he was doing there.

Walsh had served 15 years in the New Zealand Police, mainly in the Special Tactics Group, first as a sniper, then in the assault team, leadership, command and training roles. He did two tours to the Solomon Islands, one of them hunting down a local who had killed an Australian cop.

He did another to East Timor in 1999, in a remote enclave called Ekusi. His multi-national UN peacekeeping team lived in a war-ruined house with a tarpaulin roof and no communications. They tried to forge peace among warring factions and repatriate exiled villagers. While he witnessed the excavation of mass graves and saw “what people do to other people in its rawness” the experience was, he says, probably the time of his life.

His Timorese adventure prompted a mid-life decision in 2008:

“You’re turning 40: do you stay in the cops forever and a day, or go now?”

He left the police in early April, and spoke to an old friend who was head of security on a gold mine. “By mid-April, I had landed on a dirt runway in the back blocks of Tanzania.”

As Walsh describes it, one day a local they had caught stealing diesel managed to climb aboard a giant Caterpillar digger and “went rogue”, smashing down huts, vehicles and fences.

Walsh was on a quad bike.

“He’s literally going straight over the top of the quad bike and you are fearing for your life, and you’ve got to stop this - he’s on his way towards accommodation.

“So we had to make some decisions around self-defence … and yeah, a shooting occurred.”

It was suggested Walsh had killed him and buried him on the mine site. He says he didn’t, and to this day has no idea what happened to the man.

“You don’t have a body, so how do I disprove that?”

Senior company executives accompanied Walsh to the police station, assuring him it would all be fine. But he had a bad vibe. He was right.

Walsh was arrested, charged with murder, and denied bail. His employers got a message through to a contact at the prison to ask for Walsh’s protection. On arrival, he says, there was “a bit of a dust-up on me, I kind of expected that [from the guards].”

Then he was taken into a large cell. He remembers pacing it out, and thinking he had been segregated. He had a decent amount of space, he could get through this, he would be fine. 

“You’re trying to display a bit of confidence, where deep inside you are going ‘holy f...’.” 

Then the door swung open.

“And this is the part I remember with clarity,” he says.

On its exterior was chalked ‘mzungu 1’, and ‘locals 104’. Into the cell marched 104 prisoners who had been outside on their exercise break. Among them, he says, were plenty he would have had some part in putting inside.

Walsh asked if anyone spoke English. One prisoner raised his hand. He agreed to pay him as a translator and protector. One of the locals stood up and began ranting and pointing at him, repeatedly saying ‘mzungu’. Fortunately for Walsh, he was warning the others off: money had found its way to the right place.

Walsh was only in for a few days but says he found the prison system rife with corruption. Many were imprisoned for trivial offences. The inmates had their release dates crudely stitched on to their uniforms, and some told him the price of their freedom was just US$200.

Overseas lawyers and investigators were flown in, support offered to his wife. He secured bail, and his passport was surrendered, but a medical excuse was concocted to get him back to New Zealand. 

He says many assumed he wouldn’t return to Tanzania after that, but Walsh says he had to - the mate who had got him the job and the mine manager had both provided sureties. The charge never made it to trial.

He would have stayed on in the job. But once the rumours began there was a price on his head, the company sent him home for good.

“I was disappointed. But retrospectively, in that situation, I would’ve said the same.”

‘I got banged up for murder’

He’d loved the experience.

“There’s mateship, camaraderie, challenge, tough conditions, and the Tanzanian people are amazing and it’s a beautiful country.”

A month later, friends in Afghanistan had secured him another job, working for the US Embassy protecting officials and senior military on board helicopters piloted by South Africans, with Australian, Kiwi, Scottish and English security and Nepalese troopers.

After that, Walsh parlayed his considerable experience into a risk and security consultancy and corporate speaking business, leavened with security advice for touring bands.

A friend got him on to the security crew for a Metallica tour of South America. On his website, he has a photograph entitled ‘Not the Four Seasons Hotel’. It’s Walsh in full winter kit in northern Afghanistan. Four days earlier, he says, he was in a luxury hotel in Buenos Aires with Metallica. “Five star hotel rock n roll, versus shitsville,” he laughs.

Security has become a real concern in the music industry, he says.

“Terrorism is real in their world. You’ve got Bataclan [mass shooting at a Paris concert], Manchester and Ariana Grande [a 2017 suicide bombing which killed 23 fans], and some isolated incidents of meet and greets gone wrong with artists stabbed or shot, and Dimebag shot on stage [Damageplan guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott was shot dead by a fan during a 2004 concert].

“And there’s other threats that go unreported. For every 10,000 Taylor Swift fans, there’s probably a decent number of haters. In that risk environment - You’ve got to have a bit more strategy and planning around mitigating that.”

Walsh says the approach is the same as protecting a major political dignitary, only with fewer resources.

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Former cop Paul Walsh worked in Afghanistan and Tanzania after leaving the police and is now a security advisor to international rock bands.

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Former cop Paul Walsh worked in Afghanistan and Tanzania after leaving the police and is now a security advisor to international rock bands.

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Former cop Paul Walsh worked in Afghanistan and Tanzania after leaving the police and is now a security advisor to international rock bands.

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Former cop Paul Walsh worked in Afghanistan and Tanzania after leaving the police and is now a security advisor to international rock bands.

Walsh says he wouldn’t go back on the Circuit - he doesn’t, he says, have the time nor energy - and it’s no longer so financially lucrative.

“The dollars have certainly come back a bit now,” he says.

“It’s a bit of market saturation. A lot of ex-South African military jumped into it, and they are good operators, but it means the big bucks are not so much there any more.”

When Marc Parsons left Afghanistan, he was desperate to find something else as exciting and challenging. He couldn’t find work in Iraq - the “hot ticket” - so instead joined a company called Edinburgh International, a Scottish-Dubai security company that wanted to open an office in Sudan.

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Sudan, he found, “wasn’t like Afghanistan: you weren’t going to get kidnapped every five minutes. You weren’t shooting people. You weren’t getting blown up.”

But the Sudanese Civil War was raging, and the Janjaweed militia was burning, raping and pillaging its way through villages, so there was enough security work for Parsons to turn around a loss-making office into one earning EU$1.15m a year, chiefly protecting European embassies and guest houses.

He trained 120 mostly Ethiopian refugee staff on proper techniques, and began to establish a foothold in South Sudan, which was on the verge of gaining independence.

Parsons recalls one confrontation with an angry, AK-wielding South Sudanese soldier from the Dinka tribe at a roadblock. But the most dramatic moment came with a commission for a European Embassy.

A young woman who had married a Sudanese national back home had been talked into visiting his family for a holiday. With her two daughters, she was now being held captive by his family, who had confiscated their passports. The Embassy had smuggled a cellphone to her, and wanted Parsons’ help to get her out of the country. He co-ordinated a snatch, a team picking her up from outside the local mosque one Friday and driving her to a safe house, where the embassy had arranged fresh passports, and then on to an airfield to fly out of the country. 

Juba is the capital and largest city of South Sudan.

Juba is the capital and largest city of South Sudan.

Parsons’ team, including his local fixer Mustafa, was arrested and interrogated, but held firm to their stories.

“It was a proud moment,” he says.

“Yes, it cost her parents a lot of money, but what’s the cost of getting your daughter and grandchildren back?”

‘It was the right thing to do’

Soldier X had chosen his flat in Dubai carefully: he wanted to be within a 15 minute drive of the city’s international airport for urgent jobs.

One room in his apartment was kept stocked with a rack of winter gear, and a rack of summer gear. It wasn’t unusual for him to return from an assignment in cold conditions, dump his kit, and head off again for another in warmer climes.

In between, he kept himself at the top of his game: at one stage, he took an emergency medicine course at a British University.

He had moved into a job now as the head of crisis response for a PMC. He had no permanent team, but could assemble one at short notice, depending on the task. There was some kidnap-and-ransom work and some close protection work. It took him around Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

In 2006, the Israelis had Beirut under fire, and he upped his daily rate to $2000 for a five-day trip to evacuate 80 civilians. Flying domestic to Damascus, the capital of neighbouring Syria, Soldier X met three other contractors, picked up a courier pouch of cash and a taxi. 

They then drove across the border into Lebanon, and managed to charter a bus, negotiating their way through Hezbollah-controlled country, collecting the civilians unharmed, and taking them to safety back in Damascus.

It wasn’t his only commission in that conflict: he was soon back in Lebanon, escorting a journalist from The Economist who was reporting on the fighting. He vividly recalls watching traffic streaming the other way to safety, as he drove up to the Syria-Lebanon border post in a beaten-up Bongo van to go towards the danger.

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Soldier X

When he’d finished a mission, Soldier X would wash away the dust and the dirt, cut off his beard, go to a spa and eat a big steak. But after Dubai, he found himself exhausted from going from job to job. Even for Soldier X, the Circuit had a time limit.

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Soldier Y

Soldier Y was meant to be a super yacht crew member. After careers in the army and police, he was trained with three older soldiers to be a cross-discipline crew, all capable of being skipper, engineer, chef and security.

After nine months, it all fell over - but not before Soldier Y had passed his ship security course, opening up a new career combating the pirates that plague the Red Sea.

His first trip was taking an oil tanker through the Gulf of Aden.

They weren’t threatened: the pirates had plenty to choose from, and seeing Soldier Y and his mates on the bridge, picked the boat behind them.

“They were calling mayday on radio, but we weren’t coming back for them - there was no way we could assist them. It was a good introduction to anti-piracy work.”

That led to a career working on boats travelling through the Gulf and the Malacca Strait, a narrow, historically heavily-pirated strip between the Malaysian mainland and Sumatra.

Usually, Soldier Y would fly up to Dubai, meet his team in Yemen or Sri Lanka, and board the ship. He’d run the crew through lockdown drills, train his colleagues in close quarter combat and medical treatment. They were often scoped out by pirates, but never boarded.

Soldier Y had expected he would next to go Afghanistan, but the “rotations were real s...” (12 weeks on, four weeks off) and he ended up with a much better-paid role in Papua New Guinea protecting an oil pipeline. 

Now, he’s in the thick jungle of the PNG highlands, and while the tales of the wildness of PNG “are all true, mate,” he sees this as the job that will transition him off the Circuit.

Effectively, he has moved into corporate security, where he’s mostly behind a desk, directing the firm’s health and safety and the 40-strong security force which protects the pipeline from the “unpredictable, volatile” locals, and the risks of burglary, assault, theft and kidnap. On one occasion, that went as far as an irate local stabbing a security guard dead.

Like Paul Walsh, at times, managing the expectations of impoverished locals who see wealth pouring in can be a tricky business. “And some of the local communities had never seen white men before.”

“It’s f…... complex,” he says. “The most complex job I’ve ever had, because there are so many cultures within the country - 800 of them and about the same number of languages.”

In PNG, Soldier Y works 12-hour days, every day, and is virtually confined to a military-style compound, although he says the food, accommodation and gym are all good. But he’s month on, month off, which means six months a year he’s at home with his family: this is coveted work.

“I’ve got no regrets at all,” he says of his career. “And I’ve got some good stories to tell.”

Steve Kilgallon

Chris McKeen

Sungmi Kim

John Hartevelt

Monique Ford and Joe Johnson