- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

Three young women have returned home to Michigan after being rescued from an orphanage in a remote village of strife-torn Kenya by Blackwater Worldwide.

Blackwater is under fire from Congress over a September shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, but the private security firm is receiving nothing but praise from the father of two of the rescued women.

Dean VanderMey, executive director of Set Free Ministries International, a nondenominational Christian ministry in Grand Rapids, Mich., that operates throughout Africa, said daughters Brittanie, 21, and Aubrie, 19, and their friend Jamie Cook, 20, owe their lives to Blackwater’s “dedicated professionals.”

The women were rescued Sunday from an orphanage at which they were working in a remote area of Kenya after countrywide election results were bitterly disputed, sparking mob violence that killed nearly 500 people.

They arrived home safely in Grand Rapids on Monday after Blackwater operatives picked them up at an airstrip near the orphanage in the village of Kimilili. They were flown to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, aboard a 10-passenger single-engine plane located by Blackwater officials before catching a commercial flight home.

“There were only two guards at the orphanage, and they had only spears and machetes. The girls were sleeping with knives and Mace,” Mr. VanderMey told The Washington Times. “They didn’t know if the mobs were going to come to their village or not.”

After being unable to arrange for a charter airplane or helicopter to pick up the women despite a “frantic search,” he said he turned to his parents for help — and they reached Blackwater founder and owner Erik Prince through Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican.

It was within an hour, he said, that Mr. Prince, a Michigan native, called to offer his firm’s services.

“I knew the girls were in incredible danger, and I was calling anyone and everyone I could trying to get help but without success,” Mr. VanderMey said. “Then Erik Prince called, asked about the situation and said he was going to do what he could to get my girls out of harm’s way.

“It wasn’t the image that most people have of Blackwater,” he said. “But I can assure you these are dedicated men, professionals who know how to help people in times like this.’ ”

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne E. Tyrrell said the “best thing” about being a company owned, managed and staffed almost entirely by U.S. military veterans and former law-enforcement agents “is that it puts us in a position to help people who need it most.

“These are three incredible girls who went to Kenya to help and ended up needing help,” she said. “We are delighted they are safe and at home with their families.”

Mr. Ehlers was traveling yesterday in Michigan with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, and was not available for comment.

Mr. VanderMey said he paid a $3,500 charter fee for the single-engine airplane, but Blackwater charged him nothing for its services, adding that Mr. Prince, a former Navy Seal who founded the firm in 1997, “wouldn’t hear of it.”

“He said, ‘This has nothing to do with money,’ ” Mr. VanderMey said.

He said his daughters and Miss Cook had volunteered to work at the orphanage on a mission trip for his ministry and had been at the site since Dec. 1. He said they had planned to stay through next month.

“My daughters are safe, thanks to Blackwater and the thousands upon thousands of people who cried out through prayer to that God they trust to bring them home safely,” he said, noting that his organization sent prayer requests over the Internet throughout the world.

Formerly known as Blackwater USA, the firm is contracted by the U.S. government to provide security services in Iraq. The Moyock, N.C.-based firm came under congressional scrutiny in the wake of the Sept. 16 incident in which 17 Iraqi citizens were shot in Baghdad while Blackwater guarded a State Department convoy.

Twenty-seven Blackwater employees have been killed during various security missions in Iraq.

In an unrelated event, Texas businessman and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot sent a team of men to Iran in 1979 just prior to the Iranian Revolution in a successful effort to rescue two of his employees who were being held hostage.

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