"IT was like being punched by Mike Tyson," said Stuart Ridley with a wry smile. "But we were lucky no-one died. If the top hatch hadn't been open, the blast wave would have ripped arms and legs off."
Stuart, a 37-year-old native of Hawick who traded in a job in a local knitwear company for the career of a soldier with the Scots Guards, was telling of his life in one of the toughest jobs in the world.
For these days, Stuart earns his living as a private military contractor.
Recently he discovered he had been awarded The United States’ Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom.
The honour, established to acknowledge civilian employees of the Department of Defense (DoD) who are killed or wounded in the line of duty, has been given to Stuart after he was injured in Iraq while protecting American engineers.
It is the civilian equivalent of the US military’s Purple Heart medal for soldiers wounded in combat.
“It came as a complete surprise,” he told TheSouthern. “I had no idea my name had been put forward for any award. I am certainly very proud to have received it.”
Stuart has been recuperating at home since his three-year stint working in Iraq for the British private defence company, Aegis, came to an abrupt end one day a year ago.
“It happened when we were on our way from our base in Mosul to Baghdad to pick up some new vehicles. It was just Sod’s Law.
“We were passing along a notorious hotspot for getting contacted (engaged by an enemy) when I noticed some low-lying trees on our left and thought it would be a perfect place for an ambush.
“Next thing I knew there was a big bang, with a lot of dust and the inside of the vehicle went dark due to the amount of debris thrown up by the explosion.
“It was like being punched by Mike Tyson. The blast wave from a roadside device had hit the side of our armoured Toyota vehicle.
“I quickly checked to make sure my arms and legs and everything else was still there and then got on to a machine gun at a porthole and, as we had come under fire, started returning fire.”
Suffering severe headaches as a result, Stuart was later checked by medics and found to have sustained bad whiplash and had a back injury.
“The vehicle took the brunt of the blast, but luckily it was still driveable.”
Because Aegis, a British-owned firm under contract to the US Department of Defense with one of the biggest multi-million-dollar civilian contracts in Iraq, was working for the Americans at the time of the attack, Stuart’s medical bills and treatment are being paid for by the US government.
It is also because he was working for the US authorities at the time, protecting US interests, that Stuart was eligible for the medal.
Stuart came to work for Aegis following five years in the Scots Guards, during which time he served in the first Gulf War and in Northern Ireland. A stint in the Territorial Army saw him posted to Iraq where he served alongside the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards.
“It was when I was out in Iraq I saw these guys working as civilian security contractors and it seemed interesting work – and the money was very good, of course!
“So when I came back, I went down to Hereford and enrolled with a company staffed by ex-members of 22 SAS (22nd Regiment, Special Air Service).
“They put me through all the training for close protection and surveillance work, and then I sent my CV off to Aegis.”
The company is run by former Scots Guards senior officer, Col Tim Spicer. His name may be familiar to some Southern readers after the private military company Sandline, for which he was working, hit the headlines in the 1990s for its involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war.
Spicer set up Aegis Defence Services in 2002 and is its chief executive. It was in October 2004, that Aegis won a $293million three-year security contract in Iraq from the US Government.
The company now employs 6,000 personnel in Iraq – outnumbering British troops in the country – many of them ex-British Army soldiers like Stuart.
The operations of private military companies have been thrust into the limelight in recent years due to the American firm, Blackwater.
This month, the US Justice Department indicted five Blackwater guards it says were allegedly involved in the killings of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad last year.
But Stuart is adamant there is no comparison between firms like Blackwater and Aegis. “Aegis has been a very good company to work for,” said Stuart. “The team I was with were all Brits and ex-army. Aegis uses the same rules of engagement for the use of force as those adopted by the British Army. It’s a very professional outfit.”
Providing mobile security for American interests, such as engineers and diplomats, Stuart’s team operated from seven-ton armoured Toyota and Ford vehicles. He says he and his colleagues learned the hard way what works best in the 65-degree heat and dust of Iraq.
The men wear Nomex flight suits, as pioneered by the US Air Force, to help combat the effects of roadside bombs.
“They found that the initial flash from the devices could penetrate the vehicles through the floor and wheelwells, burning legs and feet.
“That’s also why a lot of the guys don’t have beards or much hair because that’s just extra stuff to get burned.”
Armed with American weaponry such as M4 rifles, Glock pistols and Minimi machine guns, the private security contractors are a formidable force.
“We’re like an F1 racing team – if we lose a tyre we have to be able to change it in under two minutes and be on our way again.
“However, every vehicle has a transponder, which, if you get hit, means any American calls-signs in that area will come to your aid.
“There’s also constant training with contact drills, shooting practice, first aid and driving skills.”
Stuart is not sure whether he will ever return to Iraq. If his back injury does not clear up, he will not get back to the level of fitness he needs to operate in his previous role.
“To be honest, after the last little bit of excitment in Iraq, I am beginning to wonder if someone is trying to tell me my time there is up. I’ve seen a lot of guys injured and worse – some of them good friends.”
Stuart says the Iraqi people were, on the whole, OK to deal with.
“But you can get a 10-year-old boy smiling at you one minute and the next he’s lobbing a hand grenade at you.”
If Stuart does not return to work for Aegis in the Middle East, he is considering setting up his own security company in Britain.
“With a partner and two young children, it’s certainly something to think about for the future. Out there you work nine weeks on and three weeks off back in the UK.
“The toughest part of the job was always having to say goodbye to my family when I had to return to Iraq.”