Blackwater Security Consulting is based in a remote, swampy area just below the Virginia-North Carolina line, in a complex that seems like a military training camp - from the barracks and mess hall to the pistol and rifle firing ranges to the imposing instructors often culled from the ranks of elite special forces.
The similarity to the military extends beyond this outpost in the northeastern corner of North Carolina - in addition to firearms training, Blackwater sends security teams to work as protective details in global hot spots, performing roles that previously were largely the work of soldiers.
And, as yesterday's events in Fallujah demonstrated, they also take on the same risks: The four men who were killed and whose charred bodies were dragged through the streets of the Iraqi town worked for Blackwater Security.
Blackwater officials would not comment yesterday beyond a statement confirming that the company is a U.S. government subcontractor hired to provide security for convoys delivering food to the Fallujah area.
According to its Web site, Blackwater was created in 1996 to capitalize on the military's trend toward outsourcing such functions as weapons and security training.
Its president, Gary Jackson, is a former Navy SEAL, as are other principals in the firm.
The company offers a range of services - from weapons and tactical training for police officers, military personnel and others to security teams, largely composed of former special forces personnel and available for dispatch around the world.
Blackwater is considered typical of the growing global security industry, whose services are increasingly hired by governments and private companies to provide protection details.
Other such companies include London-based Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which is run by former British special forces officers and provided security training for journalists assigned to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the Steele Foundation in San Francisco, which was hired to protect Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and currently has 500 personnel in Iraq.
"They (Blackwater) have a fairly good reputation," said David Johnson, director of special projects and training for the Steele Foundation.
"Even though we're competitors, our hearts go out to the families.
"At least some of us probably know some of them," Johnson said. "I almost don't want to see the list of names."
Johnson, an Army veteran who previously coordinated protective details for Cabinet officials and their foreign counterparts, well knows the dangers of working in Iraq: Two Steele Foundation subcontractors were killed and one was critically injured in a drive-by shooting in Iraq in January.
"The reality of operations in Iraq is that there's no 100 percent guarantee of safety," he said. "Sometimes bad things happen."
Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said there are probably several thousand private security personnel in Iraq.
Increasingly, companies such as Blackwater are taking a greater role in international conflicts, said Singer, whose book, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, delineated the trend.
The reason for the increase, he said, is supply and demand.
"It's driven by market forces. On the supply side, you have smaller military forces, 35 percent smaller since the Cold War," Singer said. "On the demand side, the U.S. military may be smaller but it's being called on to do much more - in Djibouti, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq. So you have this gap."