The April day I visit the NEK Advanced Securities Group office, I find no name on the building and an imposing metal door that's locked. I spot a man walking toward me and say, "I guess you have to have an appointment." Without saying a word, he swipes his key card to let me in.
Inside the former warehouse on South Sierra Madre Street, an overbearing framed poster of the 1968 John Wayne movie The Green Berets hangs on one wall. On another is a plaque for the Green Beret Foundation and another with the words "Gobbler's Woods," a reference to the Green Berets' final field training exercise, which began in the 1960s.
On an accent table sits a crystal pillar — recognition for NEK's achievements in job creation from the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp.
NEK is our very own example of the growing partnership between the military and the private sector. It's landed more than $170 million in government contracts in the past five years to provide "advanced tactical training" and "home made explosives," among other skills, according to contract information obtained from usaspending.gov.
But if the high ceilings, exposed red brick walls and minimalist design suggest an almost clinical approach to protecting the homeland, there's a bunch of mountain types who will tell you that NEK's operations can be plenty messy.
'Stop the bombing'
Day after day the blasts went off. For three weeks. The elk fled. So did deer and birds.
In March, north of Woodland Park on 480 acres known as Sourdough Valley Ranch, NEK was conducting military-style training using explosives that neighbors say rattled the windows and shook the foundations of the dozens of homes and businesses in the vicinity.
At the Historic Triple B Ranch, third-generation rancher Ron Bullard remembers horses jarred "off their feed" and charged with an instinct to flee — a risky business when most Triple B customers are novices to riding, some as young as 8.
"We have had times when people had to grab the horses and get them under control," he says.
Naturally, the detonations also disrupted the serene atmosphere.
"People come here to have this outdoor, old ranch experience," he says. "If you hear a big boom all the time, it wrecks the forest experience and beauty and nature. It changed the whole environment in this area."
Residents worried the explosions might ignite a fire amid extreme dry conditions. Monica Donovan circulated a petition to protest what she estimated to be 150 of them over a three-week period. Jon Stenstad, who lives a mile or so from Sourdough Ranch, says the blasts were so ferocious, they knocked birds off their feeders in his back yard. He would hear the boom and then feel the swoosh of air rushing after it.
Stenstad called the Teller County Sheriff's Office to complain but, he remembers, "They said it's all legal."
Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger disputes this account.
"When this bombing started happening, we started getting a lot of complaints," he says. "I had a face-to-face with one of the owners of NEK." That owner was Tony Porterfield, who lives in Woodland Park and donated $1,000 to Ensminger's 2010 campaign.
"I told him, 'People move up here for peace and serenity. I have to ask you if you would stop the bombing.'"
Around that same time, Teller County authorities discovered that Sourdough Ranch LLC, failed to get a special permit allowing NEK to use the property in that way. And NEK incurred a $16,000 fine from the state stemming from explosive permit violations.
Sourdough Ranch is zoned for agriculture. Only after a two-month public hearing process, in which residents can weigh in at hearings before the Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners, could a special-use permit be granted.
So when she received a neighbor's complaint about blasts up there, county zoning official Sheryl Decker says, she immediately wrote a letter to Sourdough Ranch LLC, giving notice that county land use regulations had been violated and all blasting was to stop immediately.
By all accounts, NEK did stop soon after that March 26 letter. But neighbors also involved the state Department of Labor and Employment's Division of Oil and Public Safety. Regulators there found NEK had violated its explosives permit, in that it kept no records of its blasts.
NEK officials told regulators they set off "at least" 16 detonations. At $1,000 per offense, division program manager D. Scott Narreau imposed a $16,000 fine.
Chief administrative officer Mark Marchant, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, has downplayed the violations. "NEK is committed to following best practices to ensure full compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations," Marchant wrote to the Indy in a May 7 e-mail. "A minor oversight was brought to our attention which was immediately addressed and rectified."
But Bill Thoennes, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Employment, said that same day when asked about the issue that it had not been "rectified."
Later, on May 24, NEK officials sat down with state officials and "admitted to all violations," Thoennes says. "Most notably," he adds in an e-mail, "the company has taken disciplinary action against the employees who were working at the Sourdough Ranch site and did not keep proper records and the company has promised never again to set any explosives off at the Sourdough Ranch site." He also says the fine should be paid by June 25.
One of many
Marchant, who declined to interview over the phone or in person, writes that NEK "coordinated" with the Woodland Park Police and Fire departments, and the Teller County Sheriff's Office, before training at Sourdough Ranch. In fact, he says, "All inspected and approved NEK's preparations and procedures at the Sourdough Ranch training site prior to our commencing the training."
But Ensminger says he didn't "have any knowledge [NEK] were training in Teller County other than this Sourdough incident." And, contrary to rumors being spread on a local blog called Teller County Talks, he says, his deputies certainly don't train with NEK; at least they haven't since he became sheriff in September 2010.
That said, Ensminger questions the "animosity" toward NEK.
"It appears to me if they're training our military like I think they are — they train the [Army] Rangers, and some of the other elite segments of the military to defend our country — I don't know what the problem is, why they're getting such a bad rap."
The company, which moved here from Albuquerque, N.M., a few years ago, has landed $171.8 million in government contracts since 2007, mostly from the Defense Department, according to usaspending.gov. "The training," writes Marchant, "is designed to save lives by enabling students to recognize and safely operate in an environment involving explosives."
According to NEK's website, the company is owned by a disabled veteran and retired special forces soldiers. "Core competencies" listed are unconventional warfare, tactical training and operational support, offensive cyber and technical forensics, exploitation training and services, intelligence operations and aviation support services. Testimonials include one from a Royal Thai Army Special Warfare officer and another from an Albanian minister of defense.
The most well-known private contractor for specialized military training — and the most notorious, for its involvement in shootings of Iraqis — is Blackwater Worldwide (now Academi). But there are dozens of private contractors like NEK that have answered the government's call, says Christopher Hellman, a defense expert with the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Mass.
"Having the kind of training infrastructure to handle the amount, or type of highly specified training needed for a unit about to deploy to Afghanistan, etc., just doesn't make fiscal sense," he says, especially considering there is an abundance of talent available from retired special ops personnel.
"It's cost-efficient," adds Ret. Col. Steve Bucci, a retired Green Beret and currently a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"Right now, with the military itself being so engaged with the actual combat, it has taken away some of the base of trainers for our own buildup of specialized skills," he says by phone from his Washington, D.C., office. "For certain of these high-end skills, they leverage these former guys. They're not a bunch of rumdums out there drinking beer and firing off rounds."
An uneasy peace
Bucci, however, points out that contractors need to play by the rules. "There is no excuse for violating local ordinances or even becoming a nuisance to the surrounding communities."
The Pentagon, too, expects contractors to comply with local and state laws, writes Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokesperson, in response to the Indy's questions. "It could impact the contractor's ability to receive future awards of DoD contracts" if non-compliance leads to criminal or civil proceedings, she adds.
Certainly, such behavior has a way of eroding confidence in everyone involved.
Stenstad says he believes the Sheriff's Office "pimped" for NEK by running interference on his and others' complaints. Under a subject heading of "The Teller Count [sic] Sheriffs Office and NEK," that Teller County Talks website shows more than 40 posts.
It's quickly soured what can, under other circumstances, be a symbiotic relationship. NEK maintains a training site in North Carolina, and its Richmond County Daily Journal reported in 2010 that it drew 760 applications for 370 civilian jobs to act as guerillas in a special forces exercise.
NEK says it's abandoned the Teller County site for explosives training, but still might do other types of training there. It continues its programs in other parts of Colorado, including Durango and "developed areas throughout the Rocky Mountains West," its website says.
Monica Donovan doesn't understand why regulators swallowed NEK's claim it set off only 16 blasts, when she made an occasional log that documented 67 explosions — including 20 within one 90-minute period.
"I really expected a bigger fine or revoking their permit for a year, two years," she says, "but no."
Regardless, Donovan and her husband are enjoying the return of peace up the pass. "The birds are back. The deer are back," she says. "I was just chasing a chipmunk. It's like everything's coming back to the way it was. The quality of life is back."
When I tell her NEK won't be conducting explosives training at Sourdough Ranch in the future, she's relieved. But when she learns the company continues to train elsewhere in Colorado, she grows quiet for a moment.
"It's sad other counties will have to deal with this," she says.