By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
He grew up on bases in Germany, Hawaii, and New Jersey. It was there, on a stranger's farm, that he landed his first job: tossing chicken shit onto corn fields. "It was my choice to shovel shit," he says. "That's how much I wanted to succeed."
It was no surprise, then, when Walbridge earned his way into South Carolina's elite military college, the Citadel. By the time he graduated in 1969, the Vietnam War was at its peak. Walbridge stepped into the real shit a year later as a member of the Army's 5th Special Forces Group.
Walbridge is hesitant to talk about what, exactly, he did in Vietnam. But his group of Green Berets was under the command of the legendary Sgt. Maj. William "Billy" Waugh.
"They went across the border and killed every son of a bitch they could kill," Waugh says of his men. "That was their job: to kill and capture, to maim and destroy."
Whatever Walbridge did, it was dangerous as hell. "If you were going up there, you were either going to die or get shot all to hell," says Waugh, whose 83 years haven't cost him his Texas twang. "Everyone in the outfit was wounded once, twice, three times."
But there was a reason to stick with the unit. "When they came up with a good POW snatch or something like that, we'd fly them over to Bangkok and get them laid for a couple of days," Waugh says. "We put them to work, but we treated them square."
Much of the 5th Special Forces activities were funded by the CIA, and after the war, both Walbridge and Waugh went to work for the Agency. Walbridge isn't eager to discuss his career as a spy. But when he retired in 1995, the head of the House Intelligence Committee read a statement in his honor. Walbridge had "accept[ed] the challenging task of recruiting and handling human intelligence sources... in Africa, Europe, and Latin America," announced U.S. Rep. Larry Combest. "Americans like Mr. Walbridge are... our first line of defense."
Walbridge had visited Miami frequently during his last assignment for the CIA, and he decided to settle here with his wife and two sons after retiring. But he didn't wait long to wade back into the dangerous world he had just left, this time as an independent contractor. Drawing upon his Rolodex of spies, he prepared threat assessments for companies preparing to expand overseas. Then, in 2000, he founded OSSI.
It was a well-timed gamble. Less than a year later, 9/11 ushered in a new age of war and war profiteering. OSSI was perfectly positioned. Between 2003 and 2010, Walbridge was awarded more than $100 million worth of contracts in Iraq alone, plus countless millions more in Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti, and elsewhere.
In Iraq, OSSI quickly swelled to more than 1,000 employees, including 275 foreigners. Most of these expatriates were former cops or soldiers from South Africa who had spent the decade since the fall of apartheid fighting throughout Africa for top dollar. Their job in Iraq was to protect dignitaries, construction workers, and cargo.
The real danger was not a gun battle with insurgents, Walbridge says, but the roadside bombs that could be remotely detonated by Al-Qaeda spotters. Other companies like Blackwater rumbled around Baghdad in heavily armored Humvees and Jeeps, with M16-toting guards hanging out the windows and music blaring. "They tried to use intimidation to protect themselves," Walbridge says. But years of operating in the shadows had taught him to take a subtler approach.
"We attempted to be invisible: no Oakleys, no ear pieces, no displaying weapons and body armor under our clothes," he says. "We'd be driving a regular-looking car with a furry dashboard and the Saturday Night Fever disco ball hanging from the mirror." It worked. OSSI guards drove more than a million miles during operations and suffered only a handful of bomb attacks, none fatal.
But OSSI wasn't completely bulletproof. One Iraqi employee was killed by insurgents, Walbridge admits, and an American died in a traffic accident. Another employee lost his legs to a landmine, and a guard was shot five times only to miraculously live. In December 2006, four guards were kidnapped at a police checkpoint in central Baghdad. Walbridge says their contract with OSSI had ended a few months earlier and they were working for another company. He believes they were probably sold to Al-Qaeda, but their bodies have never been found.
Compared to companies like Blackwater, though, OSSI kept a low profile — and a low body count. But it's impossible to fully account for Walbridge's work because American military records for such contractors are almost nonexistent. New Times' requests for reports on these and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan were unsuccessful. "Obviously, if there's a contractor over there involved in a massive shooting, then there would be an investigation," says Army spokesman Matthew Bourke. "Otherwise, grades are basically pass or fail."
There are other signs that OSSI hasn't totally avoided trouble. The firm boasts about its partnerships with two companies — Safenet Security Services and White Eagle Security Services — which both have controversial records.