DATE March 11, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dick Waterman discusses his love of the blues,
the book he wrote, photographs he took, and the blues singers and
musicians he managed and promoted
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Dick Waterman is the only non-performer in the Blues Hall of Fame.
Many great concerts and recordings would never have happened without him. In
the mid-'60s after falling in love with the blues, he founded Avalon
Productions, the first agency devoted exclusively to managing and promoting
blues musicians. Some of the musicians who have been on his roster include
Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Buddy Guy, Junior
Wells and Bonnie Raitt. Waterman usually had his camera with him at concerts
and ended up creating a huge archive of blues photos. Only in the past few
years have they been exhibited. Now many of these photos are collected in the
new book "Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive." The
book includes an introduction by Peter Guralnick and a preface by Bonnie
In the '60s, Waterman helped rediscover several important blues musicians who
had vanished from public view, including Son House. Here's one of the
recordings made by Son House in 1965, shortly after his rediscovery.
(Soundbite of song)
SON HOUSE: (Singing) I went down to the station, I say I leaned up against
the door. Yes, I went down to the station, I leaned up against the door. You
know, I knew it was the Empire State, ...(unintelligible) the floor. Well, I
asked the depot agent, let me ride, let me ride the blinds. Oh, the depot
agent, please let me ride the blinds. He said, I wouldn't mind it, Son, but,
this Empire State ain't mine. You know, he said...
GROSS: Son House first recorded for Paramount Records in the '30s.
Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him in the early-'40s for the Library of
Congress, and that's the last his fans heard of him until Dick Waterman and
his friends Nick Perls and Phil Spiro tracked Son House down. After searching
for leads in Memphis and Mississippi, in 1964, they found Son House in
Rochester, New York, a cold and snowy city in upstate New York. I asked
Waterman what Son House was doing there.
Mr. DICK WATERMAN (Founder, Avalon Productions): Well, he had worked for the
New York Central Railroad. He had moved up there probably about 1943. And he
had lied about his age, making himself younger, to get a job on the New York
Central. And he worked on the Empire State Express, which was the train--I
think it ran from New York to Chicago. And he was a porter on the train, and
then he retired. He wasn't working when we found him in '64.
GROSS: How did you explain to him why you were there and why you had tracked
Mr. WATERMAN: Well, we brought along a tape recorder, a reel-to-reel, and we
played him some of the music of his contemporaries. We played some Charley
Patton and then Robert Johnson, who was a protege, a younger musician. And we
played some of his recordings from 1930 and 1941-42. And, of course, a person
doesn't hear their own voice recognizable on a recording. So he would listen
to it and nod and say, `That fellow's got some of my words.' And I would say,
`No, no, no, no. That's you. That's you.' And his wife came into the room
and she said, `Yeah, that's you. That's you.' So he listened to it, and he
really wasn't fascinated. He wasn't all that--it just wasn't really
meaningful to him. And we told him that there were white people who were
listening to him and Robert Johnson and Charley Patton and to some of his
proteges, that some of the people that he had mentored or influenced like
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
GROSS: And you mentioned those white people who were listening.
Mr. WATERMAN: Yes. There were really very, very few people other than young
white people who were young, literate, financially well-off, going to Harvard
or Yale or Wesleyan or Brandeis or MIT--that really was the audience. You
have to understand that back in the 1960s, almost all acoustic music came
under the folk umbrella, that Cajun and zydeco and bluegrass and old-timey and
Delta blues--all of it was presented at folk festivals.
GROSS: Did you try to convince Son House to return to recording and
Mr. WATERMAN: Well, it didn't take any convincing because he was retired, he
wasn't doing anything, and it was an opportunity to get out there and make
some money. So, sure, he was OK with it. It was all very low-key. But there
was a festival in Philadelphia, so I drove up to Rochester, picked him up, we
went down to the Philadelphia Folk's Festival in 1964. That was actually his
first comeback appearance, where he played for the first time.
GROSS: Did he remember his songs and, you know, could he still sing and play?
Mr. WATERMAN: He could still sing. Son House had one of the great, great
deep, rich Delta voices of all time. He hadn't played guitar very much, so a
friend of mine in Cambridge, a man named Al Wilson, who later moved to Los
Angeles and was a founding member of the group Canned Heat, Al Wilson sat with
Son and they sat knee to knee with their guitars and Al said, `This is how you
played this song in 1930,' and then he would play it and Son would nod and
he said, `Then when Lomax came in the '40s, you had changed "my black
mama" to "my black woman," and this is how you played it.' And Son nodded his
head, and then they would play along. So really Al Wilson taught Son House to
play Son House. There very clearly would have never been a second Son House
career unless Al Wilson or someone very much like him brought Son House's
GROSS: God, that's so interesting, and it's such an interesting development
that records, you know, would enable somebody to be able to do that, you know,
that Al Wilson learned the Son House stuff through the records and then was
able to suddenly teach it back to Son House.
Mr. WATERMAN: Yeah, that's true.
Mr. WATERMAN: Yes.
GROSS: So once you started to work with Son House, you helped him get a
Mr. WATERMAN: Yes.
GROSS: And I want to play one of the recordings that came out of that. This
is one that you suggested that we play, it's called "Grinnin' In Your Face."
Mr. WATERMAN: Yes.
GROSS: It was recorded in 1965. It's an a cappella recording. What do you
think of his singing on this recording?
Mr. WATERMAN: It's just I think very, very typical of the great Delta
singers, that they sang very low and very throaty and yet there's that flared
falsetto where the voice soars up into the falsetto range. He was simply a
great, great singer. And that's one of the reasons that I chose this. He was
a great guitarist in the 1930s and '40s. His skills did diminish after he was
rediscovered in the 1960s, his hands became slower, of course. But he always
had this great voice and so I had chosen this song because I think "Grinnin'
In Your Face" shows what a great singer he was.
GROSS: OK, this is Son House, recorded in 1965.
(Soundbite of "Grinnin' In Your Face")
HOUSE: (Singing) Don't you mind people grinning in your face? Don't mind
people grinning in your face, yeah, just bear this in mind, a true friend is
hard to find. Don't you mind people grinning in your face? You know, your
mother will talk about you, your sisters and your brothers, too, yes, don't
care how you're trying to live, they'll talk about you still. Yes, but
bear--whoo--this in mind, a true friend is hard to find. Don't you mind
people grinning in your face? Don't mind people grinning in your face? Don't
GROSS: That's Son House, recorded in 1965. My guest Dick Waterman helped
rediscover Son House in 1964. It must have been so thrilling to watch some of
the original blues musicians make their comeback in the '60s. You got to do
that--you got to watch that with Skip James. Tell us a little bit about Skip
James before we go any further with this story, his importance in the history
Mr. WATERMAN: He recorded for Paramount in 1931 and then just flat out
vanished. But he was rediscovered in '64 but in the interim, 33 years,
there's really no detailed record of where he went or if he was a--played
professional music or if he did any other recordings, that it was just an
absolute total void that--he made a few sides for Paramount and they had this
high thin railing voice, very, very thin, and when he was found in '64, they
found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, and then they brought him to
Washington for a week or two, then they brought him to Newport in 1964. So
there was a great deal of expectancy that people sat and watched him because
there were--bluesmen, of course, had been on the scene all along--Josh White,
Brownie and Sonny and other bluesmen such as Bukka White and Mississippi John
Hurt had been rediscovered before Skip. So now here comes Skip at Newport,
1964, and he was coming out of the void of 33 years, and people had absolutely
no idea what he would be like or what skills he had retained over the years.
That performance that you're describing was actually documented on a "Live
from the Newport Folk Festival" recording that you've brought with you. So
before we hear it, is there anything else you want to say about that
Mr. WATERMAN: Well, Skip James in 1964 only knew three or four songs. So he
played the three or four songs at the afternoon workshop and it was riveting.
It was charismatic. It was just stunning. That's the word. It just stunned
people. And the word swept the grounds: `Skip James, Skip James, the Negro
blues singer that has just come here is just astounding.' So the night
concerts were very tightly programmed. They shifted around and they found 11
or 12 minutes for him that night. And he really did the same songs all over
again. So he just was the one that people left the festival talking about. He
was absolutely riveting.
GROSS: Well, here's Skip James singing "Devil Got My Woman" as recorded at
the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
(Soundbite of "Devil Got My Woman")
Mr. SKIP JAMES: (Singing) I'd rather be the devil, I'd rather be the devil
to be that woman man ,to be a man, to be a--aw, rather be the devil to be that
woman. You don't want nothing but your devil. You don't want nothing but the
devil. He don't change my baby's mind. You don't want nothing but your
devil. He don't change my baby's mind. As I laid down last night...
GROSS: That's Skip James recorded at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. We'll
talk more with Dick Waterman after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dick Waterman. He rediscovered, managed and promoted many
blues musicians starting in the '60s. His blues photos are collected in the
new book, "Between Midnight and Day." In 1965, you became an agent for blues
musicians. You formed your own production company, Avalon Productions. Why
did you want to represent blues musicians in addition to just like
rediscovering them and enjoying their music?
Mr. WATERMAN: Well, the blues artists were the last ones hired that--they
would hire somebody from North Carolina, Appalachian music, bluegrass, Cajun,
zydeco, and then they got one of the New York Greenwich Village protest
singers or, you know, ...(unintelligible) from Canada or someone like that and
then with whatever low money was left over, they would hire the blues singers.
And the money being paid was just terribly, terribly low. The story that I
tell in the book was that the great Robert Pete Williams who lived in
Louisiana rode out to Los Angeles on the bus and he played a weekend in a club
for $100, sat around in someone's apartment doing nothing for five days,
played the next weekend for another $100 and then got on the bus and drove
back to Baton Rouge. And I thought that was just despicable. I just couldn't
have that happen. So I just had to step up and do something.
So I rounded up four or five, six traditional blues artists. I named my
company Avalon Productions for Mississippi John Hurt's hometown in
Mississippi, Avalon, and I created a minimum price, and I said, `I will speak
for them and this is their minimum price. I'll give you photographs,
biographies, promotional material, travel itineraries, we're going to bring
some degree of professionalism to this. But you're going to have to pay them
much better.' Then the artists themselves had to stand in loyalty to me, that
they couldn't take work independently at home, that if someone called them at
home, for a job at low money, they had to say, `No, I have an agent now and
it's Dick Waterman in Cambridge.' So that was really where it started.
GROSS: Some of the people you represented gave you a hard time and one of
them was Big Mama Thornton who was known for, among other things, writing the
song "Ball and Chain" that Janis Joplin later recorded. And you tell a really
interesting story in your book about the time that Janis Joplin went to hear
Big Mama Thornton. Would you tell us that story?
Mr. WATERMAN: Well, it was a small jazz club in San Francisco and I would
say it was, I don't know, probably 1968, no, probably earlier than that, '67
or so, and I was in the club and there were not many people in there, and Big
Mama was appearing, and the door opened and Janis and a guy came in and there
was a table right next to the stage. So they sat down. And Big Mama looked
over, saw Janis, and, boy, it was open season right there, and she started to
say to Janis--and she said, `Now some people, they write songs. And they
don't get nothing. And some people what do those folk's songs. They get
themselves big houses. And they get to drive Porsche cars. And they get to
sing about Mercedes-Benz. But the people what write these songs, they don't
get (unintelligible).' And she just went on and on and Janis just sat there
impassively and Big Mama was just doing tracks up and down her. So after
about 10 minutes, Janis looked at the guy she was with, nodded her head,
reached into her purse, took out a 20-dollar bill, put it on the table, got up
and walked out.
GROSS: Did you talk to Big Mama Thornton about that afterward?
Mr. WATERMAN: No. I didn't. She was really strong-minded. She was one of
the most strong-minded people that I've ever met, and I worked with some
people who had great focus and determination. But she was some piece of work,
and the idea that I might not have got along with her doesn't put me on any
GROSS: (Laughs) I saw her perform in Buffalo once, back in the late '60s,
probably, and she went into a tirade in the middle of the set where--she just,
like, talked for about 10 minutes, straight, about how people stole things
from her and didn't credit her with...
Mr. WATERMAN: There's a story in the book of that performance in the Mance
Lipscomb essay. He was playing before her in Buffalo. And she was sitting by
the side of the stage drinking out of a bottle, just wanted to get on and get
her show on, and get off, and Mance happened to catch that magic night where
you're really in sync with the audience, and he performed and they're
demanding an encore, demanding an encore, so he was standing by the side of
the stage and Big Mama just glared at him and Mance says, `But, Big Mama, they
want me to go back on and do another one.' So they're yelling and hollering,
and so Mance went on and did another encore. Did a song, his first encore.
And then he came off and the crowd was yelling and screaming for more. And
Mance held his guitar and looked at Big Mama and she looked at him and she
said, `You're through.' And he looked at 2,000 people yelling for an encore,
he looked at Big Mama, and he nodded his head, he said, `You're right, Big
Mama. I's through.'
GROSS: Dick Waterman's blues photos are collected in the new book "Between
Midnight and Day." He'll be back in the second half of the show but first
here's Big Mama Thornton recorded in 1965.
(Soundbite of song)
BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) Sitting by my window, Big Mama was sitting down
looking at the rain. Hey, hey, sitting by the window, baby, oh, oh, I was
looking out at the rain. You know, something struck me, honey, clamped onto
me like a bombshell. And I said, `Oh-whoa, baby, why you want to do these old
mean things?' I said, `Oh, oh, oh, Mama, listen, oh, yes, why, why did you
want to do these old mean things?' Because I know I love you, baby...
GROSS: Coming up, working for a private military company in Iraq. We talk
with Mark Vargas, a former commander in the Special Forces, who is now a
security consultant for Kellogg Brown & Root in Baghdad. He wrote the
introduction for the new book "Hunting Down Saddam." Also, more blues stories
from Dick Waterman.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) When things were lean, Pearline, yeah, oh,
Pearline (unintelligible) you. Forget what I do.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dick Waterman.
Since 1964, he's rediscovered, managed and promoted many blues musicians. He
usually had his camera with him at concerts. His new book collects many of
his photos. It's called "Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished
When was the point that made you decide to give up your career as a
sportswriter and instead devote yourself to blues and the musicians who played
Mr. WATERMAN: There was a specific night. I was managing a Chicago blues
band and we were doing this show at Notre Dame University. And my artist came
in late, and he had to use borrowed equipment and he played very badly. So
the gymnasium was divided in half--half the audience and the other half was
the backstage area. So the artist came off stage and I followed him into the
corner and I was just livid. I said, `You know, you didn't come ready to
play, and when you go up there, my business name goes up there. Avalon
Productions goes up there. I go up there. Junior Wells was up there. Son
House goes up there. We all go up there. Your triumphs are our triumphs, and
your embarrassments are our embarrassments. You didn't come ready to play.'
So he apologized and walked away. And the guy who was the director of student
programming at Notre Dame said to me, `Boy, that was really dumb, man. You
embarrassed a blues musician in front of other blues musicians.' I turned
around and, well, there was about 15 or 20 Chicago bluesmen sitting there
staring at me. `Well,' I said, `I really screwed up.' So as I was walking,
someone motioned me over to the table, and I looked and it was the great Muddy
Waters sitting alone. And I walked over to him and he and I vaguely knew each
other. I had rediscovered Son House who was his mentor in the delta many
So I sat down next to Muddy and Muddy was shuffling a deck of cards and he
looked at me, and then instead of leaning forward, he sat back in the chair
and he put his arm on the back of the chair and he straightened up as if to
address the room. And he had that wonderful cadence. He said, `I heard what
you said to the boy and I seen what you did.' He said, `The boy had it coming
to him. The boy didn't show no respect for the people. The boy didn't come
ready to play.' And he leaned forward and he shuffled the cards again. He put
his arm back again. He said, `Now some folks might say you've got no cause to
talk to the boy that way, but you told the boy what he needed to hear. The
boy had it coming to him.' He said, `I had my eye on you, and you just keep on
keeping on and you'll do just fine.' And I got up and I walked away and I said
to myself, `I can do this. I can do this management thing and I'm not going
to be a sportswriter anymore. This is what I'm going to do from now on.'
GROSS: And that was the point where you gave up sportswriting. When you
managing blues musicians, your goal was to help them make a living and, of
course, to make a living for yourself, but you said that you didn't see it as,
you know, about being about history, but now that the musicians who you
rediscovered and who you represented have gone. Now that they're dead, do you
see the work that you did as having a historic value that you didn't quite see
at the time?
Mr. WATERMAN: It always surprises people when I tell them that I don't
listen to their music at home. It's more than music to me, that when I hear
these men, I remember their aftershave lotion. I know what they drank. I
know what kind of cigarettes they smoked. I remember that I would be with
them when they'd finish the song, finish the set and they'd stand up and walk
towards me and I'd take the guitar and would step into the darkness and they'd
light a cigarette and would turn around and would wait to see if there was
enough applause for an encore. And I'd put my hand on their shoulder and I
could feel their sweat, and when I hear their music, that all comes back to
me. The cigarettes, the liquor, the sound of their laughter, just talking
with them, riding in a car with them. There's just so much detail there that
they weren't just calm, gentle, congenial, grandfatherly men, that I was very
honored, I was very privileged to have had them in my life and they took me
into their lives.
GROSS: Is that why you don't listen to their records at home?
Mr. WATERMAN: That is true. That is true. Because when I listen to them,
they don't come to me as musical notes. They come back to me as people.
GROSS: Dick Waterman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WATERMAN: Thank you very much, Terry. I've enjoyed it.
GROSS: Dick Waterman's blues photos are collected in the new book "Between
Midnight and Day." Here's a track from another musician who was managed by
Waterman, Mississippi John Hurt.
(Soundbite of music)
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT: (Singing) Our plant's all right. Bad Lillian
(unintelligible). My baby packed a suitcase and she went away. I couldn't
let her stay with my Lillian. With my Lillian ...(unintelligible). I just
had to have that ...(unintelligible). You can bring me whiskey, you can bring
me tea. Nothing will satisfy me but my loving spoon. Pull that mic down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Coming up, working for a private military company in Iraq.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mark Vargas talks about the capture of Saddam Hussein,
postwar Iraq and his career in the military and now with KBR
TERRY GROSS, host:
After a career in the military, serving as a commander in the Special Forces
and receiving many medals and awards, Mark Vargas is in Iraq working for a
private military company, Kellogg Brown & Root. In July, he became KBR's head
of security in Tikrit. Now he's their security consultant in Baghdad.
Kellogg Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton. On previous shows, we've
discussed some of the controversy surrounding the company, but today, we just
wanted to heard what life is like working for a private contractor in Iraq.
Vargas has written the introduction to the new book "Hunting Down Saddam,"
written by Robin Moore. Vargas was based in Tikrit when Saddam Hussein was
captured nearby by the 4th Infantry Division.
You wrote the introduction to the new book, "Hunting Down Saddam." Were you
involved in any way with the actual hunt for Saddam Hussein?
Mr. MARK VARGAS (Kellogg Brown & Root): No, I wasn't. I was just in the
same vicinity of where the capture took place...
GROSS: Now how much...
Mr. VARGAS: ...working out of a facility there called The Tikrit Palace.
GROSS: How much awareness did you have of what was going on? Was it so
secret that you didn't really get a wind of it or did you get a wind of it?
Mr. VARGAS: In my capacity as a civilian contractor working in security, I
collaborate with the military all the time. If I have information that they
could use from some of my workers that are local national Iraqis that are
working for us, I share that information with them. Along with that, I attend
their--we call them--battle update briefs that the military runs every day,
and they have these battle update briefs twice a day and they talk about
missions that they have completed and missions to come. And most of the
information that is given at these battle update briefs are classified and the
targets that they go after are classified. So you kind of have to read the
tea leaves of what they're trying to do. So, yes, I kind of was in the know
'cause I was reading the tea leaves and saying, `Yeah, I know who they're going
GROSS: What was the reaction in Tikrit after Saddam Hussein's capture?
Mr. VARGAS: Once it was made public which was the next day when Secretary
Bremer released that information and the Iraqi radio stations started
broadcasting it, the Tikritis around Tikrit themselves were elated. They
began celebratory fire, shooting their weapons up in the air which can become
dangerous at times. The workers that were working for me at the time were
told and they were smiling. They were very happy and hugging each other and
kept showing us some of the torture marks that Saddam's regime had done to
them. So they were very, very happy.
GROSS: Would you describe your job as Kellogg Brown & Root's security
manager in Tikrit?
Mr. VARGAS: What I do is I collaborate with the military and make sure that
our security is in collusion with each other. I give them information. I
give them the weaknesses that we have and ask them for help in certain areas,
one being convoy security. We have to travel with a military convoy to
protect our civilians. We cannot travel outside of a military installation
when we're trying to provide services to the military. We have to travel in
an armed convoy. That's one of the aspects of my job. The other one is to
ensure that our resources that we're providing to the military are protected
physically. We provide a certain degree of protection ourselves and then we
expect the military to help us in accordance with a contract. They are to
provide forced protection for us. So that's kind of the two biggest areas
that I work with the military on.
GROSS: What are the greatest threats? You know, what are the things you've
successfully prevented from happening? What are the greatest threats on the
Mr. VARGAS: I believe that the greatest threat to the coalition forces--when
I say that, coalition forces, that encompasses all the military
representatives representing the coalition to include civilian contractors
from each of the countries. The biggest threat is again the failure of the
Iraqi democratization if you will to show the Iraqi people that we're there to
help them rebuild their country and get them on a road to democracy. And the
threat can come in many forms. Now there is a...
GROSS: Wait, are you saying that some of the Iraqis see you as the bad guys
when you see you see yourselves as the good guys and there hasn't been enough
work to change that perspective? Is that what you're saying?
Mr. VARGAS: More or less. One of the things we're trying to do is employ
more Iraqis and to get them employed, to get them to start bringing food to
their tables and not to see us as somebody that's here to take their role.
And there was a myth and there still are of people believing that, but I think
they see above that. And what we have to do as part of the coalition force,
we have to show them that, that we're here to stay and we're not going to
abandon them like some groups did in Afghanistan. We're here to help them
rebuild and see them through the end. We're not here to take their oil.
GROSS: You spent 22 years in the military. Now you're with a private company
in Iraq. Is there anything regulating the kind of weapons you're allowed to
use? What kind of weapons can you use as head of security for Kellogg Brown
Mr. VARGAS: Well, most of us do not have weapons. That's why we rely on the
military for our protection. And just recently, I switched jobs. I now work
out of Baghdad and one of the capacities I do is oversee the executive
protection details for some of our VIPs. And with that, I do get to carry a
weapon, but I normally try not to get out there 'cause that's why we have an
executive protection detail to go out there and take the risk. So there's
only a few of us that really have weapons, and it's more or less for
self-protection, not to be offensive but to be like the military would be.
GROSS: How does a postwar Iraq look in Baghdad compared to how it looked in
Mr. VARGAS: Well, I think the people of Baghdad are anxious to get back to a
normal life, which they've--most of them never knew. The infrastructure seems
to be moving right along. You can see hotels being rebuilt; you can see, you
know, the power stations up and running to almost 100 percent capacity where
before, even during the Saddam regime, they were probably at 70 percent
capacity. And I think the people are very excited. The majority--70 percent
of them--have, as was quoted by some news media folks just recently, they want
to see change. They want to be able to take control of their own country.
You know, they want us out of there--I mean, what country wants a foreign
military power inside of it, controlling it?--as soon as possible. But at the
same time, they know that they cannot progress unless they get law and order
established and end oppression between some of these groups.
GROSS: Now you were in the military for 22 years. Why did you decide to go
into a private military company after that?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, I saw a lot of opportunity there. Before I retired out of
the military, I finished my master's in business management and I kind of
wanted to go into a private company and use some of those skills. And part of
it was just the opportunity to continue to work overseas and being in Special
Forces for over 20 years, you get injured a lot. And I've had a fractured
ankle from a parachute jump. I've had three knee surgeries. I've been shot
in the leg before. I've had a dose of melanoma, a bad shoulder. So, you
know, I can go down the laundry list of why, you know, it comes a point in
time in somebody's career, A, it's time to give it up and go do something
that's not as risky. But my foot is in my mouth for where I'm working now.
Mr. VARGAS: ...the physical part of it was part of the decision I made.
GROSS: You meant your heart is in your mouth, right?
Mr. VARGAS: There you go.
GROSS: Yeah. So anyway, so the physical issues played a big part in retiring
from the military, but a lot of people after that would want to just go to a
safe setting, you know, maybe an easy security job in the US or something.
You hardly went that route.
Mr. VARGAS: Well, you know, I started out working for--we were called Brown
& Root back then, in 1999, in the Balkans, in Macedonia and then eventually
Bosnia. It was pretty much a safe environment; providing services to the
military. And I did that for a year and after that I worked for the
Department of Defense for three years as an anti-terrorism officer. And I
guess after doing three years of that, people know me, they know my reputation
in the civilian industry, not just the Department of Defense, and, you know, I
got quite a few job offers to come back onboard and that's why I'm in Baghdad
right now working for KBR because, you know, people know me and, you know,
they offer me--you know, money has something to do with it of course. You
know, you take risks in life and one of those risks is your job.
But to me, I don't see it as what the media portrays it as: `They target
Americans and, you know, all Iraqis are against America.' That's not true.
there's probably less than 1 percent out there that are part of these
terrorist groups, that are part of the insurgency. And part of my natural
upbringing through the military was to win the hearts and minds of indigenous
people that I would work with in those Middle Eastern countries that I've been
to and I just thought it was a natural thing for me to do, is to go help KBR
GROSS: What's it like to have been part of the military for so long and now
be working closely with the military but not be a part of it?
Mr. VARGAS: You know, in the beginning, it was OK. You have to change your
way of thinking somewhat. Fifty percent of the people that are part of most
of these civilian contractors are former military or else they cannot just hit
the ground running, so to speak, as most of us can do. So we understand what
they're going through. We understand their methodologies. And we can bring
something to the table. When we sign up and work for these civilian
contractors and the military sees it--and, you know, they pick our brains and
ask us for, you know, ideas to help improve their situation--and, you know, we
open all the doors. Anything they want.
GROSS: Without asking you to necessarily give specific figures, how does the
pay compare with a civilian company vs. the military?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, I guess your salary, depending on what rank you've reached
in the military, is almost doubled.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. That's powerful incentive.
Mr. VARGAS: Yes. Yes, it is.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Vargas, a former commander in the Special Forces who
is now working in Baghdad as a security expert for Kellogg Brown & Root.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mark Vargas, a former commander in the Special Forces, who
is now working in Baghdad as a security expert for Kellogg Brown & Root. He
wrote the introduction for the new book "Hunting Down Saddam."
Who do you answer to? Do you answer to the military or to KBR and does
KBR--you answer to KBR and do they answer to the military? Like what's the
chain of command like?
Mr. VARGAS: That's exactly right. You got it right on the nose. I answer,
you know, within my own chain of command at KBR and the head people answer to
GROSS: How do you dress? Do you dress in a military uniform or in a
military-type uniform so that you have the authoritative look that the uniform
provides? Or would that make you too much of a target?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, we're not allowed to wear uniforms and that's one of the
stipulations of the contract, because we're not combatants.
Mr. VARGAS: We don't consider ourselves combatants so we wear civilian
GROSS: So what do you typically wear?
Mr. VARGAS: I can--you know, depending on the occasion, I can wear anything
from, you know, dress slacks to a collared shirt and, you know, if I'm going
on a detail, sometimes I might wear blue jeans and a T-shirt with a vest to
hold magazines and things like that.
GROSS: Is it a bullet-proof vest?
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah. We all wear bullet-proof vests just like the military
does and helmets when we go outside of the hotel.
GROSS: I'm going to assume that you would have found it difficult to return
to civilian life back home in the United States when you retired from the
military because you've remained in war zones through private companies. What
is so hard after having served in the Special Forces for so long about the
idea of returning to a kind of quiet, safe civilian life in the US?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, I had that life. I lived in Coral Springs, Florida, and I
was working for the United States Southern Command, which is based in Miami,
Florida. Then later I took a job with 5th Corps which is out of Heidelberg
and I worked there for three years. So, you know, the job is--all these jobs
are analytical. You know, you use your brain more than you use your brawn.
And, of course, I probably at this point in my life, I like to use my brain
more than I use my brawn because, you know, my body is falling apart. But,
you know, I still find it exciting to be in the know and to be in the know you
have to be there.
GROSS: Do you have a family?
Mr. VARGAS: Yes, I do.
GROSS: And are they in the US or in Baghdad?
Mr. VARGAS: They're in the US.
GROSS: Do they worry about you a lot?
Mr. VARGAS: Of course.
GROSS: Is it hard to be separated by your work like that?
Mr. VARGAS: Yes, it is. It's very hard. You know, I've been married almost
14 years and my wife is--known nothing but Special Forces and deployments and
deployment after deployment and spending, you know, three months out of the
year at home and, of course, once I retired, I did it for a year and she
wasn't very happy. And I took a job with Department of Defense for almost
three years and we had a great life and we still do. You know, I could take a
break anytime I want and I'm--it's not like I'm stuck there forever. I can
take a break very four months or every two months and meet her somewhere. But
this is not, you know, a career that's going to go on, I can tell you that.
It's something that I wanted to do. You know, maybe I'll just do it for a
year. My year's up in July and then I'll go back to a normal life.
GROSS: Right. So you say.
Mr. VARGAS: So I say.
GROSS: One last question, and this might strike you as a little goofy. But
since you've sustained so many injuries in all your years with the Special
Forces, how do you deal with pain? Is pain hard for you to deal with? Can
you just like put that in the background or is that the kind of thing that you
find very distracting?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, I call it herbs and vitamins. That's how I deal with
pain. And I think I have more headaches now than I've ever had because I'm
using, you know, my brain more than anything else. But...
GROSS: You mean literal headaches.
Mr. VARGAS: Literal headaches, yeah.
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah. I think it's--some of the ...(unintelligible) is growing.
You know, I'm using the left part of my brain more than I ever used it before,
GROSS: And it hurts.
Mr. VARGAS: It hurts. It hurts.
GROSS: Well, good luck to you and thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. VARGAS: It was very nice to have this opportunity, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Mark Vargas is a security expert for Kellogg Brown & Root. He's now
based in Baghdad. He wrote the introduction to the new book "Hunting Down
Saddam," by Robin Moore.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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