Utahn gets 'rush' as bodyguard
May 19, 2006
Deseret Morning News
By Doug Robinson
Utahn gets 'rush' as bodyguard
. . . brandishing assault rifle, riding in armored car in Iraq, Afghanistan
Like most students, Dale McIntosh, a business major at Westminster College, works his way through school to pay for his education. He will be among the millions of students who will find a job this summer, but the similarities end there. Unlike his peers, he won't flip hamburgers, mow lawns or wait tables. He'll brandish an M-4 assault rifle and carry a Glock pistol on his hip while working as a bodyguard in the most dangerous place on Earth.
McIntosh is one of a growing number of privately contracted bodyguards - many of them ex-soldiers - hired by the U.S. government to protect its officials in Baghdad and other Middle East hot spots. McIntosh spent a year and a half in Iraq and Afghanistan protecting government employees assigned to work there, as well as those passing through on official business - among them, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. John McCain, Treasury Secretary John Snow, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (now ambassador to Iraq).
The work is highly dangerous. Four of McIntosh's comrades were killed last summer, two weeks after he returned to the states.
It's also highly lucrative. McIntosh can earn a lot of money quickly - he has made as much as $25,000 a month. At 29, he owns a house and other investment properties in Hawaii, a condo in Salt Lake City and drives a new Denali. He lives off his investments while he attends school.
"My family would prefer I didn't go over there," he says, "but it's such a good opportunity financially."
There is something besides money that drives McIntosh to risk life and limbs: adrenaline and the kind of camaraderie that athletes share as members of an elite team. He has survived a dozen firefights and ambushes, not to mention enough high-speed car chases and crashes to film another "Bourne Identity."
"It's addicting because you do get an adrenaline rush, and it gives you a new appreciation for life," he says.
Because of defense budget cuts, the United States relies heavily on private security contractors for protection. According to a recent article in The Australian Magazine, some 50 foreign security companies are licensed to operate in Iraq.
"In Iraq the subcontracting of war has happened on an unprecedented scale," writes Jon Swain. "In the first Gulf War there was one private contractor serving on the ground for every 50 American solders; now it is estimated that there is one for fewer than 10 servicemen."
These soldiers of fortune weigh the benefits - they can earn as much as $1,300 a day and $40,000 per month - against the risks - more than 300 private contractors have been killed, as they dodge exploding cars, road mines, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers, mortars, suicide bombers and military-grade assault rifles.
"The majority of the guys over there have wives and kids," says McIntosh. "They had come out of the military without much to show for it. It is a way to improve their lives."
Dale McIntosh serves as a bodyguard for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in Iraq during the winter of 2003. McIntosh loves the adrenaline involved in some of the work.
McIntosh doesn't have a wife, but he does have a father, Tony, and four older brothers, Keith, Tony Jr., Robert and Blake. (His mother passed away.) They are no strangers to military life. Tony served in the Army for 30 years, including a stint in Vietnam, before settling the family in Star Valley, Wyo., about 20 years ago.
Keith is a former Army veteran who patrolled the DMZ in South Korea. Robert is an Army doctor based in San Diego whose work consists largely of the treatment of soldiers who were injured in Iraq. Eventually, he will serve in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"It was scary having (Dale) over there," says Tony. "I didn't want him to go. But he's a grown man. People do what they feel they need to do. I worried all the time and prayed for him and was concerned and was just glad when he was back here safe."
After graduating from high school, McIntosh attended Utah State University briefly before signing up for the National Guard, which assigned him active duty for 18 months. Shortly after leaving the Guard, he joined the Marines and eventually earned an invitation to special ops training.
He was assigned to the U.S. Marines 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company. They trained abroad for several missions, working closely with their international counterparts. They did mountain training in the Alps with the Slovenians, jumped out of planes with the Tunisians, performed ship-to-land insertions with the Turks, practiced sniper shooting out of a helicopter with the Greeks, performed desert operations in Djibouti with the French Foreign Legion.
They were sent to Djibouti to prepare for action in Afghanistan; they waited on a Navy ship in the Adriatic Sea during the Bosnian conflict for a mission to seize dictator Slobodan Milosevic; they waited on a ship off the coast of Iran for another mission to seize Osama bin Laden's brother.
They never saw action. McIntosh and his platoon felt like the athlete who gets stuck on the sideline for the big game.
"Regardless of what people say, you want to go do what you've practiced," says McIntosh.
After five years in the Marines, much of it during the post-9/11 era, he returned to civilian life, as did other frustrated members of his platoon. "We thought, if we're not going to do anything now, when things are like they are, what's the point," says McIntosh.
McIntosh, 26 at the time, attended classes at Salt Lake Community College and worked as a personal trainer. Meanwhile, he was taking out student loans and going into debt. After meeting with an ex-Marine pal who was serving as a bodyguard for the Afghanistan president, McIntosh decided to quit school and join him.
Needing money and craving action, he was on a plane 10 days later bound for three weeks of training and evaluation with a private contractor based in Tennessee. He was trained in self-defense, close-quarter combat and defensive and offensive driving - how to spin a car, how to reverse direction, how to take corners at high speeds, how to ram another car, how to push a car to its limits.
McIntosh passed the evaluation and was sent overseas. He spent six months in Afghanistan, five months in Iraq, two months in Bosnia and then another two months in Iraq last summer before returning to Utah and school last fall. He struggled to adjust to civilization.
"I started going to the shooting range and shopping for a bullet bike - something to get the blood pumping," says McIntosh, who sleeps with a pistol by his bed. For the first few weeks he jumped when he heard loud sounds.
The truth is, part of McIntosh's job in Iraq is also tedious and austere. He and the other private security guards live in trailers inside a walled compound and almost never venture beyond those walls when they aren't working.
"When you left the compound, you wore body armor and you were armed to the teeth," he says. "We drove through the city with guns hanging out the windows and each of us was assigned to scan a sector."
Much of his job consisted of whisking clients through Baghdad at 80 miles per hour in armored Suburbans and Land Cruisers. Insurgents use a variety of tactics to slow them - i.e. rocks in the road, ramming their vehicle, parking a car loaded with explosives by the road, staging accidents.
"If you get into an accident, you don't stop," says McIntosh. "If there's a traffic jam or a car in the way, you pull into the oncoming lane of traffic or just push the car through and keep going. Speed is security for us. Anywhere we went, we went fast. A car bomb is harder to time for a fast-moving car. If someone is catching up to you, you know they're a threat."
(At least one client, Hillary Clinton, complained to a companion in the back seat that they were going too fast for her to see the sights.)
On one occasion, McIntosh was riding in the third car on a one-way street when their three-car motorcade was ambushed. As McIntosh tells it, "We saw a couple of guys walking up from the left and knew something was going on. You can sense it. One of them reached into a car and grabbed an AK. Someone inside the car handed the other guy a Glock. They started shooting at the limo (middle car). The first round hit the engine. The engine does not have armor, so the electronics went out, and the car went to idle. We swerved toward the shooters to try to hit them or mitigate their threat, and they turned their fire on us. Then we rammed the limo from behind and pushed it to our destination through traffic and stoplights."
Before their clients leave a secure area, the security guards gather information from native and American military sources and then make a recon drive as an advance team, plotting routes (rarely the same one twice) and checking out the destination ahead of time. They escort their clients from the vehicle to the building and then set up an armed perimeter.
"You precede them into every room," says McIntosh. "Some of the political people don't like it; they think it's embarrassing. We form a circle around them and don't let anyone inside the ring except people we know or he knows. We would be his bad guys for him so he could be the nice guy and let them in."
Much of the guards' effectiveness is based on deterrence through intimidation. Many of them are built like linebackers - McIntosh is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. They lift weights and exercise in their spare time. McIntosh grew a woolly beard to add to his menacing aura (hence, his call sign of "Chewy"). They keep their weapons visible.
"The whole mentality when you're guarding someone is to avoid confrontation, to take a defensive posture," says McIntosh. "We didn't want a firefight. If someone shoots at us while we're driving, we run away and protect our client and get him out of harm's way. It's against everything instilled in a military man."
Notwithstanding, private contractors are controversial in the Middle East because they operate under virtually no law. They can and do shoot to kill anyone who is carrying a weapon, for instance, with impunity.
"I can't tell you some of the things we did over there," he says. "When we got there, contractors were legally in a gray area. We didn't fall under military law or Iraqi law. To do our job, we can't afford to be diplomatic - if someone won't listen, we act. If a car comes up behind us and won't back off on our order, we get aggressive. We stick a gun out the window, and if that doesn't work, we point it at them. At that point, if we felt threatened, we shot the engine block or even them. If they're not backing off, they could have a bomb."
That said, McIntosh adds, "When we first went over there, it didn't matter that we weren't under any law because we were all professionals and no one was taking advantage of that freedom."
He believes that is no longer the case. The reputation of private contractors has suffered with the increased demand for security and the resulting decline in quality guards. McIntosh notes that when he first trained for security work in Iraq, the selection progress was "rigorous." The firm that hired him considered only highly skilled and experienced former special ops soldiers. It was like a tryout for a professional football team. They stayed in a hotel together and dreaded a phone call that meant they would be sent home the next morning. McIntosh laments that such rigorous standards are no longer required.
"By the time I left Iraq, we would've begged for the guys who were cut from that first group," says McIntosh. "We were one of the first companies to go in there, and within a couple of months we saw the quality drop off. Now it seems like the only requirement to get into the contracting business is you have to get past Level Six on the Delta Force video game."
McIntosh realized how far the standards had fallen one day when he walked into a U.S. military base PX and saw one of the new private contractors. He was wearing a full-length black leather coat in the middle of the Iraqi summer, with a pony tail, screw-you sunglasses and two revolvers placed backward in holsters on his hips.
"First of all, no professional would dress like that," says McIntosh. "He just wanted to look cool. There are efficient ways to draw a weapon. He'd have to throw open his jacket, cross draw two revolvers that may have had only six to eight rounds. Those are the people who get into trouble and make a bad name for everyone."
McIntosh and other security contractors work and live with their lives almost constantly on the line. For a time, there was a $100,000 bounty on their heads during his assignment in Afghanistan. ("In a weird way, we were flattered," he says.) Driving through the streets, he could see people videotaping their motorcade "gathering intell."
During his stay in Iraq, McIntosh had to ride in unarmored cars. "Bullets went through the door like cheese," he says. During one ambush, a bullet passed through the door, struck one guard in the femoral artery and then struck a guard sitting next to him in the leg.
"He almost died," says McIntosh of the first man. "He lost so much blood he passed out. He stopped breathing just before we reached the hospital. The Suburban was covered in blood."
It is such moments as these that keep the McIntosh family glued to the TV while one of their own is working there. "Money's not everything," says Tony. "I feel he's made some money, and he's back home safe. Stay home now. He was blessed the times he was over there. There's a time he won't go back there anyway. . . . It's now as far as I'm concerned."
There is another kind of subtler wound that Tony, the Vietnam vet, fears for his son, as well. "The things people see in a combat zone . . . sometimes it's hard to get over it," says Tony. "Sometimes they never get over it. A lot of these homeless people are vets. They just couldn't handle it mentally."
Dale McIntosh has seen those things already. He owns a collection of videotapes of the ambushes recorded by cameras mounted on the dashboard, as well as a collection of photos that chronicle the carnage. There are photos of men with the tops of their heads shot off, and photos of skeletons in the street that have been picked almost clean by packs of dogs.
The McIntosh family hears and sees news of the latest violence in Iraq and stews until they hear that he is safe. Older brother Keith sends an instant message on the Internet every time there is an incident to contact his brother.
"I tried to talk him out of going over there," says Keith. "It's not something I would do. He's really good at it and seems to pick up the leadership roles quickly over there. When I heard things happen on the news, I would instant message him on the Internet and he would tell me he was all right. It's a risk most people wouldn't take for that money."
Looking back, McIntosh explains the allure of such a dangerous job: "I did it because of the money and because it gave us the opportunity to do the fun stuff we wanted to do in the military without a lot of the B.S. that came with dealing with officers. We had a purpose over there.
"In the military we weren't getting into the game. I was in five years and didn't real feel like my life was in danger, and I don't mean that the way it sounds. It's just kind of a rush, an appreciation of life when you've been in that situation, and I wanted to experience that. People were shooting at us, and we were shooting back. That was a rush you wouldn't come down from all day. Those are the moments that cause you to reflect on life. Even now, I don't get upset at petty things. The whole experience gave me a new perspective on life."
Ultimately, the risk contributed to his decision to return to the United States last summer. "You feel like you have a deck of cards you throw out there, and if you keep throwing them out there eventually your card will come up. I had benefited enough. I didn't want to start a family with one arm."
That said, McIntosh recently began the paperwork process for more security work. He plans to return to Iraq soon.