PILOT MOUNTAIN, N.C. — Chris Berman was sitting in a Kuwait airport in 2004, waiting for the burned and dismembered bodies of four fellow Blackwater security contractors to arrive from Iraq so he could escort them home.
At that moment, he started thinking about building a vehicle that could have kept his comrades alive.
After finishing his 90-day contract in Iraq with the North Carolina-based security company, Berman began building armored trucks in Kuwait that were specially designed for contractors.
The shop in Kuwait is still turning out trucks, but now Berman's stalking bigger game: military contracts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, for vehicles designed to protect troops from the improvised bombs that are causing many of the U.S. casualties in Iraq.
Members of Congress and military leaders are eager to get more on the battlefield. The Army quietly decided last month to build as many as 17,770 bomb-resistant trucks, according to USA Today. That raised the total Pentagon commitment nearly 23,000.
Berman is trying to win a piece of those contracts with two angular, brutal-looking new models - one of them a six-wheel-drive beast.
They have features such as machine gun turrets, gun ports and seats mounted on huge shock absorbers to protect them from blasts. Options include grills down the sides to block rocket-propelled grenades.
More than 1,000 troops have been killed and more than 11,500 others wounded by the makeshift bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Army and Marine leaders are demanding tougher armored vehicles to replace the Humvee. Unlike the armored Humvee, new vehicles such as Berman's are designed from scratch to defeat mines and roadside bombs, with diamond-shaped bodies to deflect blasts rather than absorb them.
If Berman succeeds, the venture could create hundreds of jobs in North Carolina. His company, Granite Tactical Vehicles, has taken over a 100,000-square-foot factory left vacant when Pilot Mountain's once-vibrant textile industry collapsed. Inside, he's building the two new models and a prototype of a refined version of his contractor truck, which he hopes to begin producing there so he can shut down his Kuwait operation.
Berman, a California resident and former Navy SEAL, said he picked North Carolina because of the ready supply of empty factories and labor. His company isn't the only start-up operation in the state with its eye on the lucrative contracts: Blackwater, too, is starting to make armored trucks at its compound in Moyock, in Currituck County in the northeastern corner of the state.
Blackwater is press-shy, in part because of its sensitive government security contracts, including work with the CIA and State Department. A spokeswoman didn't reply to requests for information about its trucks and for a plant tour.
The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City reported this month that Blackwater President Gary Jackson - who is also a former Navy SEAL - told a civic group that the company had hired more than 50 Ford and Volvo workers and planned to be building one truck a day by summer's end.
Granite Tactical has about 10 employees now, and is hiring former autoworkers specializing in things such as suspension and steering systems and production line supervision, Berman said. If the company wins a large contract, he said, it could quickly grow to 400 or more workers. Among other contracts he's pursuing, Berman plans to bid on an Army contract this month for up to 2,500 trucks spread over several years.
Granite and Blackwater have several well-established competitors, such as Illinois-based International Truck and Engine Corp. Berman thinks being a relative newcomer can be an advantage, though.
"We're the young kid on the block, so we took the best everyone had to offer and improved on it," he said.
Berman has good cause to be passionate about the trucks: He just missed being a casualty in Iraq himself. He had volunteered to take his friend Scott Helvenston's place before the security team left Kuwait for Baghdad, but Helvenston insisted on going. Three days later Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Michael Teague and Wes Batalona were driving through Fallujah in two unarmored Mitsubishi SUVs - guarding three empty freight trucks - when they were ambushed by insurgents and shot to death. After the killers fled, a crowd gathered and burned the men's bodies, mutilated them, dragged them through the streets and hung two from a bridge.
Berman said his initial idea was to build a truck that allowed contractors to survive ambushes and also have to turrets and gun ports. His trucks for contractors have been used successfully in Iraq since 2004 by companies including ArmorGroup, one of the largest security contractors in the world.
A refined version of the contractor-style truck is taking shape at the Pilot Mountain factory, and Berman said he received an order for several more last month. He's "about 95 percent certain" that he would act on his option to buy the building this fall.
Town leaders have seen as many jobs disappear in the past decade as there are Pilot Mountain residents - about 1,250.
Mayor Aaron Hunter said they're still paying for huge amounts of now-idle water and sewer capacity that textile makers once needed. They're rooting for Berman.
So are state leaders, particularly Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who have made luring more military contractors here a priority in recent years.
With its big bases, Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, the state ranks third nationally in the number of troops, but 26th in value of products produced by military contractors.
"This is exactly the kind of thing we're interesting in," said Will Austin, executive director of the North Carolina Military Foundation, a group of retired generals and business leaders formed this winter to lure more military contractors to the state. The idea, championed by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, is to replace thousands of textile, tobacco and furniture jobs lost in recent years.
"It appears he's got a great product that will save lives, and if they're successful they could create a lot of jobs in a region of the state that really needs them," Austin said.