BAGHDAD -- Cruising toward Baghdad in a Spanish turboprop plane with a dozen other private security contractors from Blackwater USA, Rich, a 43-year-old former US Navy commando, squinted out the window at the Euphrates River.
The Casa 212 dove 12,000 feet toward Baghdad airport in a corkscrew approach. A short while later, Rich was riding shotgun in the back of one of Blackwater's South African-made armored vehicles along the main highway to the capital, one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.
''I like being some place where stupidity can be fatal, because here you work with people who think about their actions," said Rich, who asked for security reasons that only his first name be used. He and his colleagues voice disdain for what they consider the soft, even pampered lives of most Americans, in a society he describes as one that ''puts warnings on coffee cups."
Rich is typical of the men drawn to Blackwater USA and other private security firms now doing a booming business in Iraq. They're driven by money and a lust for life on the edge, but also by their own altruism. Sporting blue jeans, wraparound sunglasses and big tattoos, they look the part of gun-slinging cowboys, but most are experienced enough to know that a hot-dog attitude may be the fastest way to get yourself and others killed.
With more hired guns in Iraq than in any other US conflict since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Rich and other armed contractors also admit that their role is cloudy and controversial. They do say they shoot to kill, but they also note that they aren't considered combatants in the legal sense.
US military officials have expressed concern about violence in which the private contractors open fire. The contractors' mission is to protect the lives of individuals and cargo, but not necessarily to support the broader interests of the US counterinsurgency.
For more than a year, Rich has traveled across Iraq, guarding the former US occupation authority chief, L. Paul Bremer, and other high-ranking diplomats. He plans to make a career at Blackwater, even though 18 of his co-workers have died on the job, including two whose bodies were hung in Fallujah in March from what is now called Blackwater Bridge, as well as six who were killed when a helicopter they were riding in was shot down outside Baghdad on Thursday.
With about 240 deaths among 20,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq, Rich's work is as risky as or riskier than that of the US military, as firms such as Blackwater take on a role in the Iraq war. Blackwater has about 1,300 employees on a given day, spread out over seven countries, the firm says. That number includes hundreds in Iraq.
''We have to be willing to go abroad to fight, to go after these guys here, so my family at home can stay safe," Rich said. He left the Navy SEALS in the mid-1990s to save his marriage, he said. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said he felt compelled to leave the Virginia cellphone company he had worked for, and he put his military skills to use.
As the Blackwater convoy sped down the airport highway, John Freeman, a former Marine, was at the wheel of the lead Mamba, a high-riding, $70,000 armored vehicle designed to withstand antitank mines.
Used by the South African military in Angola, the vehicle is Blackwater's primary means of zipping State Department employees and other nations' diplomats to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. For additional protection, the convoys are shadowed by helicopters with armed guards manning the open doors, and scanning for potential attackers.
Freeman, of Portsmouth, Va., said he joined Blackwater after seeing some Marines on television in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.