Albert Oliver dug into a box of his dead son's mementos to retrieve a photograph of three flag-draped coffins inside the bay of a military cargo plane. One of the coffins carried his son's body.
Oliver stiffened at the sight, proud and angry at the same time.
"That's the end result of trying to fight a war with makeshift equipment," said the World War II combat veteran, who later made a living fixing military aircraft. "That's what burns me."
His son, Butch, died March 25, 2003, when the single-engine plane he was piloting slammed into the Colombian jungle, killing the three men aboard. The crew --- civilian contractors who worked for the military --- was searching for three colleagues being held hostage by Colombian rebels. The hostages, including Georgia resident Keith Stansell, had been taken when their single-engine plane crash-landed six weeks earlier.
Before America fought a "war on terror," it fought a "war on drugs." The Colombian campaign, like the war in Iraq, uses large numbers of private contractors, who often have military experience and perform jobs once done by soldiers. They are hired to augment a military that has shrunk since the Cold War.
Congress in the 1990s limited U.S. manpower in Colombia to 400 military personnel and 400 contractors. Commanders of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) now are asking Congress to allow 800 military personnel and 600 contractors, says SouthCom spokesman Stephen Lucas. The added forces, he said, would conduct more surveillance missions and train Colombian military.
Critics say the military uses contractors because they are expendable. "It's like killing an old stray dog to them, just kick them in a ditch," Albert Oliver said. "If they were military, it would be a way, way bigger story."
Butch Oliver, 39, who grew up on a dirt road in Spalding County, was a rookie pilot for SouthCom Reconnaissance System, a military-funded program that gathered intelligence on drug cultivation and Colombian guerrillas. He once worked as a mechanic for the program in Colombia, then flew corporate jets in Atlanta. But he never had a chance to ease into his new job flying routes over hostile mountainous terrain. As he started work, the program's other plane went down and he was thrown into the desperate search for survivors.
Parents, Widow File Suit
The families say the government and Northrop Grumman Corp., the defense contractor that ran the program, have kept them in the dark about the crashes. Butch Oliver's parents, Betty, a secretary on military bases for 35 years, and Albert, a civilian federal employee on military bases for 37 years, say they expect more from their government.
The Olivers and Californian Sharon Schmidt, whose husband, a Vietnam veteran, died with Butch, filed a federal lawsuit against Northrop Grumman, the Department of Defense and other entities and individuals. They say they filed the suit to find answers.
The suit alleges Northrop Grumman used single-engine Cessna 208B Super Caravans in the program because they were less costly than multiengine craft. The suit says government and Northrop Grumman officials ignored warnings from pilots that the planes were "underpowered and unable to provide a safe platform for the surveillance."
After the first crash, the suit alleges, Northrop Grumman and other corporate and government officials created a separate corporation, CIAO Inc., "to protect their profit margin by trying to insulate themselves from liability." Oliver and his crew were "terminated" by Northrop Grumman as they prepared to search for their colleagues and told their contracts had been switched to the newly created CIAO, the suit alleges.
The plaintiffs' lawyers are Jasper attorney Edwin Marger, a pilot who once worked for the CIA, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a one-time CIA analyst. Barr visited Colombia in late 2002 to inspect the anti-drug program and later wrote a congressional report that criticized the effort's "many stops and stutters" and lack of leadership.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Jack Martin Jr., citing "pending litigation," declined to answer questions about the program or the families' concerns. In the past the company has said it is cooperating with government agencies on the hostage situation.
SouthCom spokesman Lucas said he could not address the lawsuit or the families' allegations.
In a written response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lucas wrote that the Cessna Caravan "has an excellent history in a wide variety of applications around the world. It was considered adequate for the missions required of the SRS."
SouthCom considered the program to be "very useful and productive," said Lucas, adding that using contractors allows reconnaissance "without deployment of military aircraft and crews, which were employed in other missions."
'A Suicidal Mission'
Butch Oliver was hired by California Microwave Systems, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, to replace one of two pilots who had quit the program citing safety concerns, including the use of single-engine airplanes and the expansion of their missions to include heavier payloads and longer flights.
"It was a suicidal mission, almost," said one of the two pilots, Douglas Cockes.
Albert Oliver tried to talk his son out of the job in Colombia.
But Butch Oliver saw "the chance of a lifetime," his mother said, with excitement, fulfillment and a $100,000-a-year salary.
"God will take care of me," he told his parents.
Butch Oliver was hired Feb. 10, 2003. Three days later, a Cessna Caravan on a classified mission crash-landed after engine failure. Guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, captured the crew and executed the American pilot and a Colombian army officer. The other three crew members, including Stansell, a 39-year-old ex-Marine who lived with his fiancee and daughter in Colquitt in South Georgia, are still being held hostage.
"They could barely get over some of those mountains with that little plane," said Stansell's father, Gene, who lives in Bradenton, Fla.
Hostage Thomas Howes, the co-pilot, questioned the wisdom of using a single-engine plane for the missions in a documentary, "Held Hostage in Colombia," made by a Colombian journalist. "I don't think any one of the three of us would put our faith in one motor in the mountains over Colombia," Howes said.
In the documentary, the captives were stunned to learn a plane crashed looking for them. "I don't want anybody dying to get me out of here," Keith Stansell said. "This isn't a movie. This is real life."
The military classified its investigations of the two crashes as secret. The Olivers said all they ever got was a half-page investigative summary that says the plane hit a 100-foot-tall tree on a 4,400-foot ridge while on a nighttime "climb-out" from an airport. There was no sign of engine failure, investigators concluded.
Butch Oliver "had no business in the program, especially to be trained on the job," Cockes said. "Talk about taking a lamb to the slaughter."
Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said, "There's very little accountability, very little oversight" of the Colombia project.
Contractors, he contends, "keep the program under the radar screen." They are "disposable and they're deniable," he said.
And Tree says the eradication effort in Colombia is pointless, like "shoveling water."
Cockes, the pilot who quit the program, disagrees, saying the war on drugs in Colombia is necessary. He supports expanding the program and using contractors.
"The military has too much on its plate," said Cockes, who said he made $150,000 a year in salary and living expenses in Colombia. He said contractors were worth the money, often bringing more experience than many military personnel. Cockes flew 30 years for the U.S. Customs Service, most of it in drug interdiction. Tom Janis, the pilot killed by rebels, had 30 years' military flying experience.
Deborah Avant, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington, said contractors gave the military "more flexibility." They also help avoid congressional and public debate and disclosure, she said, which could lead to a "more adventurous foreign policy if you have private forces."
The program in Colombia was changed after the crashes. The operation restarted under a different name, the Colombia Reconnaissance System, using twin-engine planes.
Those changes come too late, the families of the killed and captured pilots say.
Hope Remains Strong
In Florida, the Stansells cling to hope that the rebels will release their son.
They don't hear much. "Our government has hushed it over," Lynne Stansell, Keith's mother, complained. She estimates they've watched their son on the documentary video at least 50 times.
In Spalding County, the Olivers surround themselves with reminders of their son. A wooden clock he made and gave to his mother two days before leaving for Colombia hangs on the wall. The ticking soothes her.
A photo of Butch Oliver in a cockpit sits on a desk. The Olivers search the Internet with their son's computer for stories about Colombia. They tend to Maggie, his beloved Labrador retriever.
Butch Oliver died for his country, they say. So Albert Oliver went to Fort McPherson with the flag that accompanied his son's body home. The guard, using the ceremony reserved for veterans' funerals, folded the flag into a triangle.
It sits in a wooden frame on Butch Oliver's old rolltop desk in his parents' family room.
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