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April 01, 2004
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Feeling Grief Half a World Away; N.C.'s Blackwater Hit Hard

By Maria Newman, The New York Times

The war in Iraq came to roost in tiny Moyock, N.C., when television footage of four dead Americans, their bodies burned and two of them dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates River, filled television screens there.

The four were employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, an international security company here that is one of the area's largest employers.

Moyock, an unincorporated town of almost 14,000 in the northeast part of the state, is home to many people with ties to the military. The town is less than an hour's drive from the world's largest Navy base in Norfolk, Va. And Blackwater, as a defense contractor, is one place where the close bonds between the military and the town's economy can be clearly seen.

Many people who work for Blackwater, a company that provides security training and guard services to customers around the world, are former law enforcement personnel in Moyock and nearby communities, or military veterans, or both.

Marty Huffstickler, a part-time Blackwater USA employee, said people in Currituck and nearby Camden counties have always supported the Blackwater owners, including president Gary Jackson, a former Navy Seal commando.

"They are good people," Mr. Huffstickler said, echoing the sentiment of many people in Moyock. "That's a good company for the county."

Mr. Huffstickler said the deadly ambush in Iraq stunned everyone at Blackwater.

"I just think it's a useless way to die, the way they are dying over there," he said.

The four Blackwater employees killed Wednesday in Iraq, who have not yet been identified, were believed to have been escorting a food delivery to a United States military base when they were ambushed by masked gunmen in downtown Falluja. In television footage replayed around the world, the gunmen could be seen setting their vehicles on fire, and then an enraged mob dragged the charred bodies of the Americans through he streets of downtown Falluja, with at least two of them hung from a bridge. It was one of the most brutal anti-American demonstrations seen since the war in Iraq began more than a year ago.

"We grieve today for the loss of our colleagues and we pray for their families," a statement on Blackwater's Web site said today, adding that the names of the victims would not be released "out of respect for their families."

"The graphic images of the unprovoked attack and subsequent heinous mistreatment of our friends exhibits the extraordinary conditions under which we voluntarily work to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people," the statement continued. "Our tasks are dangerous and while we feel sadness for our fallen colleagues, we also feel pride and satisfaction that we are making a difference for the people of Iraq."

Blackwater Security is a subsidiary of Blackwater USA, which provides a wide range of training and security services. Founded by two former Navy Seals in 1996, the company keeps a low profile as it operates its growing enterprise out of a sprawling 6,000-acre complex just south of the Virginia-North Carolina border in Currituck and Camden counties.

Robert Becker, who lives down the road from the Blackwater USA complex, said he had no idea the company was training personnel to serve in Iraq.

"It is a shock," he said. "I didn't realize they had sent anyone from back there overseas."

Even though Mr. Becker does not know anyone from the Blackwater staff, the realization that the contractors who died had passed by his home on the way to training made him pause.

"Even knowing that they were this close to being in my own backyard, it is an awful thing," he said.

Like other Currituck County residents, Mr. Becker is used to the odd comings and goings of agents, soldiers, sailors and police officers who drive into the complex early in the morning and sometimes leave at sunset.

"You see D.E.A. agents at the Citgo and the F.B.I. agents, I guess, or whatever they are," he said.






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