There are new allegations that heavily armed private security contractors in Iraq are brutalizing Iraqi civilians. In an exclusive interview, four former security contractors told NBC News that they watched as innocent Iraqi civilians were fired upon, and one crushed by a truck. The contractors worked for an American company paid by U.S. taxpayers. The Army is looking into the allegations.
The four men are all retired military veterans: Capt. Bill Craun, Army Rangers; Sgt. Jim Errante, military police; Cpl. Ernest Colling, U.S. Army; and Will Hough, U.S. Marines. All went to Iraq months ago as private security contractors.
"I went there for the money," says Hough.
"I'm a patriot," says Craun.
"You can't turn off being a soldier," says Colling.
They worked for an American company named Custer Battles, hired by the Pentagon to conduct dangerous missions guarding supply convoys. They were so upset by what they saw, three quit after only one or two missions.
"What we saw, I know the American population wouldn't stand for," says Craun.
They claim heavily armed security operators on Custer Battles' missions — among them poorly trained young Kurds, who have historical resentments against other Iraqis — terrorized civilians, shooting indiscriminately as they ran for cover, smashing into and shooting up cars.
On a mission on Nov. 8, escorting ammunition and equipment for the Iraqi army, they claim a Kurd guarding the convoy allegedly shot into a passenger car to clear a traffic jam.
"[He] sighted down his AK-47 and started firing," says Colling. "It went through the window. As far as I could see, it hit a passenger. And they didn't even know we were there."
Later, the convoy came upon two teenagers by the road. One allegedly was gunned down.
"The rear gunner in my vehicle shot him," says Colling. "Unarmed, walking kids."
In another traffic jam, they claim a Ford 350 pickup truck smashed into, then rolled up and over the back of a small sedan full of Iraqis.
"The front of the truck came down," says Craun. "I could see two children sitting in the back seat of that car with their eyes looking up at the axle as it came down and pulverized the back."
"I said, 'Wow, what hit this car?'" remembers Hough.
Could anyone have survived?
"Probably not. Not from what I saw," says Hough.
The men assume that in all three incidents the Iraqis were seriously hurt or killed. But they can't be sure.
"It was chaos and carnage and destruction the whole day," says Craun.
Two of the men — Craun and Colling — say they quit immediately.
Craun, in an e-mail two days later to a friend at the Pentagon, wrote: "I didn't want any part of an organization that deliberately murders children and innocent civilians."
Errante says he also quit after witnessing wild, indiscriminate shootings on two other missions.
"I said I didn't want to be a witness to any of these, what could be classified as a war crime," says Errante.
Once back in the U.S., Craun — recipient of the Bronze Star — took the allegations to Army criminal investigators. The Army tells NBC News it's looking into the matter.
This is not the firm’s first brush with controversy. Custer Battles is a relatively new company in the booming field of so-called "private military companies" in Iraq providing veteran soldiers from around the world for various security jobs. Named for founders Michael Battles and Scott Custer, who are military veterans, the company quickly nabbed lucrative contracts in Iraq, where U.S. authorities needed firms who were willing to accept high-risk assignments.
The company is already under criminal investigation for allegations of fraud centering on the way it billed the government. Those allegations are also at the heart of a lawsuit by former associates. In September, the military banned the firm and its associates from obtaining new federal contracts or subcontracts.
Custer Battles denies it committed any fraud, and says the company has been the target of "baseless allegations" made by "disgruntled former employees" and competitors. It has said it hopes that the government will overturn the suspension on new contracts.
In any case, the ban didn’t stop the company from fulfilling its old contracts, such as the missions performed by Craun, Hough, Colling and Errante.
"These aren't insurgents that we're brutalizing," says Craun. "It was local civilians on their way to work. It's wrong."
Anyone who's been there says Iraq is a brutal, deadly place. So why do the men blame Custer Battles?
"Simply, they're negligent," says Colling. "[Just] throwing people out there and then forcing us to use these brutal tactics. They're responsible, absolutely."
Custer Battles declined to be interviewed on camera. The CEO calls the allegations "completely baseless and without merit" and says there's "no evidence" to support them. He adds that the Kurds worked for a subcontractor, not Custer Battles.
The company provided conflicting information about the crushed car but arranged for NBC News to talk to the man who who oversaw the mission on Nov. 8, 2004. Shawn Greene, who still works for Custer Battles in Iraq, spoke by phone with NBC News. He acknowledges that during the mission a pickup truck did roll over the bumper and taillight area of a sedan, which he says refused to move out of the way. Greene denies anyone was injured in the incident.
"There were no children in that vehicle," he insists.
As the leader of the mission, Greene ordered the lead driver to push the vehicle since there had been attacks against convoys in that area in the past.
"He came directly in front of my lead vehicle," says Greene. "That is how that car got in our path. And why he had to be pushed out the way when he refused to move. It wasn't that we went out of our way in any way looking for a car to hit. We don't do that."
But because of the dangers on Iraqi roads, Greene says employees of Custer Battles do sometimes push Iraqi civilian vehicles out of their way if they refuse to move.
"Usually, you know, we give them a tap at about 20 miles an hour or so," he says.
The company also arranged for a phone conversation with its country manager in Iraq, Paul Christopher. The company points out that Christopher is a retired lieutenant colonel who authored a book on the ethics of war and ran the philosophy program at West Point. Christopher maintains the Nov. 8 mission was the only case where a civilian car was damaged by the company in Iraq.
The company provided a photo to NBC News, which it says is the car in question, to prove that the damage was not that severe. In the photo, the passenger compartment of the car seems to be intact.
Craun, Colling and Hough say it's not the same car.
As for the incidents of allegedly wild shooting, Greene also disputes that any innocent Iraqis were killed by gunfire during the mission, although he agrees there were warning shots fired on several legs of the mission.
Likewise, Christopher insists "there has absolutely never been a case of anyone being hurt or killed to my knowledge, except for people who were actively engaged in shooting at us first."
Certainly the company does experience genuine combat conditions. In fact, on one leg of the November mission, the convoy came under a serious attack by Iraqi insurgents. First, the pickup truck driven by Hough was struck by an improvised explosive device, or IED, which killed one of the Iraqi Kurd guards. Then the men fought a pitched firefight against insurgents until the U.S. military arrived.
However, Custer Battles claims all these men are "disgruntled" former employees, who believe the company still owes them money. It says Hough was fired and that Craun once confided to a colleague that he knew the company didn't really kill any children.
So why are these men going public with these allegations now? They say because they care about American soldiers and about winning the war.
"If we continue to let this happen, those people will hate us even more than they already do," says Craun.
And they say that only makes Iraq more dangerous for American soldiers.