Lurking Beneath the Surface of Blackwater North

The stillness of tree lined Skunk Hollow Road in Jo Daviess County Illinois, twenty miles from the beautiful Palisades along the Mississippi River, will soon be shattered by gunfire. Not the gun fire of wild turkey hunters but the gunfire from a new training facility for the most powerful mercenary army in the world, Blackwater USA.

I had a view of Blackwater’s new Illinois facility that is usually reserved for the hawks circling overhead. I stood on-top their climbing/rappelling/shooting tower looking down at the bulldozers busy moving tons of earth to create more shooting ranges.

On eighty acres in this isolated corner of Illinois, one hundred miles from Chicago, Blackwater is creating another large training site. This site will eventually, according to Blackwater North’s vice deputy Eric Davis, compare to their headquarters in North Carolina. They have a full schedule of classes ready to roll beginning April 9th with a pistol shooting course that is already three over capacity. The first three weeks of courses are filled and the others are filling fast.
According to the Jo Daviess County zoning officer Blackwater is planning to do the same type of training that a small group called The Site who trained a few Illinois police officers previously, so “they do not require a special use permit because the property was grandfathered in when zoning codes were established in 1995. ”

Linda Delvaux, JoDaviess county zoning officer told a source that there are limits on what Blackwater can and cannot do. She said they can’t buy any more land for this site without getting a special use permit, which would require a public hearing. Also their

“Pro-shop” can’t be open to the general public, only to people taking classes. People nearby, which might number 10 and most of them are over two miles away, can make complaints about noise, damage to property, animals, or increased traffic, etc.

In January Blackwater paid a visit to the Village Township Trustees and also to the county board. According to a resident they said hello we’re your new good neighbors and we’re happy to be part of the community.

When I drove into their Blackwater North site off the country road I could see immediately that they were doing far more than what they were telling their neighbors. Just inside the gate the bulldozers were busy moving earth, also near the combat town were several cargo containers along with a large CAT front-loader. As Mr. Davis told me, “We’ve got a lot going on.”

“Everything they offer in North Carolina will be offered here except for the high speed driving portion. We don’t have a track yet. We’d like to buy some of the surrounding acreage so we could put one in.” He said with his mild southern accent looking out across the grassy area to the tree lined ridge.

I told him that I thought they may not be staying around since they only had a one year lease according to Dave Whittrock one of the owners. “A year’s lease with option to buy at the end of the year.” According to Mr. Davis the lease began in September of 2006. “We’re staying. They’re not going to let it go now. I mean we’ve got just in moving earth alone a half million dollars invested.” That’s not counting anything else.”

The anything else would be the fiber optics they had to put in because they are over 50 miles from any type of adequate computer connections to meet their needs. Which means they easily have close to a million dollars invested in this secluded rural location.

He said of their North Carolina headquarters that they owned 6,000 but leased another 6,000. “We’re starting out like they did 10 years ago.” He said kicking a stone with the toe of his boot. “But we’re getting there.”

While he led me in the direction of the pro-shop in a large modern metal building a few feet from the tower, he told me that they were flying up two instructors from North Carolina for Monday’s class. When I asked if they had a helicopter pad he replied, “We will eventually.”
Once inside there are office areas and a break room with a stack of empty pizza boxes. One of the two high school girls answering the phones is his daughter who has spent half of her life with him overseas while he was a marine responsible for embassy security in 17 African countries. “I was with the marines for 22 years. I worked directly for the State Department.”

I was told earlier in a phone conversation over 30 days ago that they would not be having a submachine gun class because they did not have “a permit for that kind of instruction.” Now he highlighted for me on a copy of the course schedule the submachine gun class. A Heckler & Koch weapons course. Their catalogue description of

the five day course reads; “This course is designed to develop understanding and tactical proficiency with H & K MP5, or UMP weapons.” They will be offering both an instructor course as well as an operator’s course; the first Scheduled for April 30th is full. He told me that 21 of their 25 courses were open to anyone and that only five are for active duty law enforcement and active duty military.

I asked about buying something from the pro-shop expecting him to say no because of what I was told about the zoning restriction but I was surprised when he said sure, “I’m always willing to take your money.” So I made a purchase and got a written receipt. I asked about sales tax he said that Blackwater had business licenses and tax identification numbers in all 50 states.

When we got outside I asked if I could take some pictures from the tower and he said sure again. So we climbed the tower where I had a good view down onto the entire Blackwater North 80 acres. When I asked if Blackwater’s construction company was doing the work I saw below he said no that it was contracted out to a local company. “You got to figure out which side your bread is buttered on. We live in the local community it’s better to spend local dollars.” So even though Blackwater’s construction company is upset with them and even though the bids were similar they went with the local company. “We get to make the decision because we’re here on the ground. So whatever decisions we make they (Blackwater N.C.) go with it.”

“That down there is our classroom building.” What I saw was a double wide portable classroom better looking than any I’ve seen at any public schools.

Unlike the zoning officer and the resident’s report on the county board meeting Mr. Davis claimed that work was behind schedule due in part to the weather and also due to “the county gave us the run around too. Trying to get all the permits. The county probably backed us up forty days. I had to get my EPA permit, Illinois Historical Preservation permit, I had to get other permits, and I had to get this permit and that permit. Every permit took thirty days.” He says as he zips his coat closed.

Driving down the lane past the computerized Blackwater designed and built target system, out onto the country road again. I notice the sign on the fence across the street reads, “Illinois Wildlife Refuge Area.” I stop to take in the beauty of Spring coming into this natural valley, some of the buds beginning to show on the branches, hawks still circling, hidden in the trees deer stand watching. The bulldozer roar begins to fade in the distance as I pass over the crest of another hill.

Reflecting back on my visit to Blackwater North I realize more fully the fact that often more is going on than one sees on the surface. And I think about a bumper sticker on the front of their pop cooler in the break room that read: “Sniper: You Only Need One Shot.”
What becomes of our souls when we make war a business?

12 thoughts on “Lurking Beneath the Surface of Blackwater North”

  1. Thanks for this excellently written article. I will pass it on to others in our US IL 16th Congressional district. It seems our US Rep had no idea this was occurring until our anti-war group met with him last month. “War for Sale” is going on right in our back yards.

  2. We are country that has been militarizing the police since the Clinton administration, now we are constructing inland bases for Bush’s private army …

    If this can happen in a solidly blue-state as Illinois it can happen anywhere. Bad Moon Risin’ …

  3. Thanks for being such a polite interviewer. I suppose….wait though? You were able to make a purchase in violation? Big surprise! They break laws wherever they go. Why not Illinois? However, some of us realize the possible implications of this group being in Illinois(due west a few miles from their base on a satellite map for those of you who can imagine a much darker future) and we will not be as polite with our clear objective, their removal from our state and our country. This is ultimitely an organization that pays a lot of money, including hundreds of millions of our tax dollars, to heavily armed employees or licensed to kill contractors. THEY ARE EMPLOYED BY THE HIGHEST BIDDER. A private army, yes, and please google who’s private army it is. We hope everybody has a few million dollars laying around to cover your own butts for the duration. Please wake up people before these no-name mercs are on your streets protecting us from ourselves. They were already employed following Katrina. Side note: Have you ever walked with men who live by the gun folks? We have and you don’t want to. Imagine wanting to be responsible for an automatic weapon everyday of your imagined short life. It creates mental instability, otherwise known as the powertrip. We’re not talking about kids here. These are full grown men who choose this way of life. And to Blackwater we say this, we’ll smell the fear on you long before you smell the love. You have come to the wrong state for sure. Clocks a ticking boys.

  4. Apologies yinn, I had you for moderator here. I noticed my post from yesterday was gone and seemed as if it had been pulled. Hurrah hurray for civility on the prairie. Ring the bell.

  5. Is there room (or tolerance) for a dissenting opinion here? I live within a few miles of the Blackwater site & believe what they’re doing there is a good thing. At this moment, they’re providing good paying jobs & the economies of JoDaviess/Carroll counties can sure use the tax dollars. The area is so secluded that, as the webpage author stated, maybe 10 people will hear the noise of gunfire. What’s the harm? Their stated purpose is to train law enforcement officials for the violent world we live in. I don’t know about you, but I want the cops in my area to be properly trained and armed for whatever is thrown at them. Who better to train them than retired military? By the way, when does a soldier become a mercenary? Is it when they sell their skills to someone other than our government? Wait a minute, they’re still selling their skills to our government, only with a middle man!

    A couple of other points:
    1) If you want to protest our govenment’s, or Blackwater’s, involvement in Iraq, go ahead, I applaud you, but consider the impact of your actions. If you succeed in putting Blackwater out of business, where does it stop? I work for Honeywell in Freeport & a different division sells avionics to the government for warplanes. Does this make Honeywell, or any other government contractor a “purveyor of death”? Are you going to put these companies out of business, too? What about the millions of people who will lose their jobs?
    2) There is no official “Illinois Wildlife Refuge” in Skunk Hollow – anybody can buy a sign as added insurance against trespassers. I have a similar sign myself.
    3) Illinois is a “blue state” only in population. Did you know that 87 of the 102 counties in Illinois voted for Dubya? I live in a decidedly “red” county, but I sure didn’t vote for him – but then again, I haven’t and won’t vote for anyone named Clinton.
    4) Blackwater was begun as a company in 1997 – I can’t remember who was in office then.
    5) As to the point of them selling the author something from the “Pro Shop”, have you seen what they have for sale there? No weapons or ammo of any kind – just trinkets. Was that breaking the agreement with JoDaviess county? Yep. Let he who is without sin zing the first rock. Personally, I have never exceeded the speed limit or broken any other traffic laws in JoDaviess county or anywhere else.

    From the article presented & the comments, I’m quite sure that most of you disagree with me, but I hope you have ability to consider an alternate opinion.

  6. We welcome alternate opinions offered civilly and thoughtfully, as yours are.

    I guess I have two main problems with Blackwater–or with any other industry that is connected to defense. One is that we’ve never had a national dialogue about the privatization of the military, how far to allow it to go and what the implications are. The other is, I am concerned that we are becoming dependent on conflict to put bread on our tables. Does our economy collapse when these conflicts end?

    To be blunt, we do not welcome “houses of ill repute” or drug operations in our communities, even though they provide jobs. There are probably other types of businesses where we should draw a line and say “no” to the jobs because of our moral reasoning. We’ve been having a dialogue here in DeKalb about the business of horse slaughter and whether it should be allowed for any number of reasons. We should have the same dialogues about other purveyors of death. Why aren’t we building things that help instead of harm?

  7. Yinn,

    Thanks very much for your reply. I agree with you philosophically; in a perfect world, we would all be working toward, and for the common good of all species. There would be no poor, no racial hatred, no unwanted babies, no conflict of any kind – politicians would actually work for us! Unfortunately, the world is far from perfect; walk out the front door, listen to the news or read a newspaper – reality screams at us with every movement.

    After 35 years of working as an engineer, I’ve seen a fair portion of this planet & what I’ve seen has changed me drastically. I’ve seen the most innocuous substances turned into weapons & used on our fellow man with horrifying results. Should the makers of fertilizer be punished for the Oklahoma City bombing? Should the makers of cue tips be punished because someone turned the product into a lethal dart? The division I work for primarily produces switches & sensors, many of which I had a hand in the design, that make cars & factory automation more efficient, less expensive & minimize pollution. These same devices can be used to produce weapons by those with such designs. Am I to blame?

    This has been a long winded way of saying that we need to be careful in our condemnations – not everything is as it seems. To you Yinn, I wish you well; hold on to your ideals and optimism as long as you can. Change the world – make it a better place.

  8. Praire folk,

    Smoke, mirrors and oxydized metal. They may have some of us fooled, but that is alright. Apparently with the acceptance of the sell out during a working life one manages to come to the conclusion that these cowboys have a place in our state or even under our flag. Your reality becomes what it is when you chose to accept it. Your soul withers when you don’t do the right thing. WE don’t want your version and Blackwater has shot it’s way into ours. Not forever.

    By the way very good job on organizing those talking points with a thin veil of fear. Unfortunately there is a definite echo of despair within hollowness of everything you present. For those of you interested in some facts check out the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on Iraq contracting with a heavy focus on Blackwater. Google who founded and owns the operation. Google who their lawyers are. Do some research yourself all you Rustys out there before you come in fake asking for permission to comment. No need to ask! Don’t forget where you live friends. We’re actually still free despite all the surveillance and information gathering. This situation in fact is just a matter of time. We just don’t do this type of business on the praire. It makes us uncomfortable. That translates into rejection. Red, Blue or Purple.

    Looks like the pro(takes a lot of skill to kill) shop already has been spooked and is still having trouble getting a license or two(or three or four or five).

    A little love and oil for the tin man please.

  9. I suggest that those of you who are concerned about Blackwater and other mercenary forces being based near their homes read “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” by Jeremy Scahill. It’s a chilling account of what has become Bush’s own praetorian guard. I also recommend digging through the Internet for postings by New Orleans residents and journalists who ran into these thugs who were being paid close to $1,000/day by the taxpayer to “keep order” as a paramilitary force after Katrina. No money for reconstruction, but millions for mercenaries.

    I do not live in Illlinois now, but I graduated from Shimer College in Mt. Carroll in 1970. The area has always had a special place in my heart and I’m saddened that this organization has chosen to despoil such a wonderful spot with its presence and activities.

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