The last time I was at Ellsworth Air Force Base - a month ago when the 37th Bomb Squadron returned from Guam - I noticed a change at the main gate.
The visitors center was staffed by civilians, and the security guards at the main gate also were civilians.
Military security forces at Ellsworth have long been stretched thin. In fact, one of the major post-9/11 call-ups of the South Dakota Army National Guard was to provide security at the air base. A friend of mine who was a clerk in a National Guard maintenance unit got weapons training; then she spent a year on base with an M-16 rifle.
Air Force security personnel continue to be in high demand overseas, but guarding bases was a strain on Guard and Reserve units. So now the job of guarding Ellsworth has been outsourced.
The company with the contract has a unique and surprising history.
Akal Security, based in Espanola, N.M., is one of the world's fastest-growing companies, according to the company's Web site, listed at the end of this column. Akal (ah-CALL) has more than 13,000 employees worldwide and bills nearly $1 billion a year.
On Friday, I called company senior president Daya Singh Khalsa to welcome him to Rapid City, and he told me, "If you have a federal courthouse, we're already there." Akal contracts to provide security for federal courthouses nationwide.
The company also secures airports, utilities, railroads, cruise ships and other private clients.
Akal's government clients also include 10 Army bases and 18 Air Force bases, including Ellsworth.
Akal is unique and surprising because it's the only major security company in the United States owned by a nonprofit religious foundation: the Sikh Darhma of New Mexico.
The Sikh religion was founded more than 500 years ago in India. Sikhism is based on a "warrior saint" ethic, according to "Sikhi Wiki," an online encyclopedia run by Sikhs.
The late Yogi Bhajan, who founded the Sikh Darhma of New Mexico, was a customs agent in his native India, but most of the group, including Akal co-founder Daya Singh Khalsa, are American converts.
Members of the New Mexico Sikh Darhma practice Kundalini Yoga, vegetarianism and community service.
Top Akal executives, many going by the name "Khalsa," also show up as political contributors to both parties, according to the New York Times. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, spoke at Bhajan's memorial service. Daya Singh Khalsa was among a group of Sikhs who met with President Bush after 9/11 to discuss religious tolerance.
Sikhs, with their distinctive beards and turbans, are sometimes the target of anti-Muslim bigotry, but Sikhism is not part of Islam.
Most Akal employees are not Sikhs, so don't expect the guards at Ellsworth to have beards and turbans.
Ellsworth officials say Akal security guards will allow Air Force security personnel to spend more time on advanced training. The move also will free up Air Force police for more deployments overseas.
"But not to worry - the civilian guards are well trained to provide the base with safety and security," the base newspaper, the Black Hills Bandit, recently reported.
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Col. David Koontz, 28th Security Forces Squadron commander at Ellsworth, said Akal will provide "entry control." Military security forces will still be on duty.
There's no doubt that it's harder to get on base post-9/11. During my recent trip to the base, my fellow reporters and I stood in line for nearly a half-hour while Akal personnel checked identifications and took photos of base visitors.
The Akal personnel at Ellsworth, hired mostly through newspaper ads, got 70 hours of training for their jobs. The training focused on "conflict management, vehicle searches, weapons of mass destruction training, self-defense and defensive tactics," according to the Bandit.
Akal also has developed its own course in detecting "improvised explosive devices," according to the company Web site.
Koontz said hiring Akal allowed Air Force security personnel to train together for more sophisticated missions.
The issue of outsourcing of military functions has been much in the news in recent years, especially in Iraq. Blackwater security contractors were massacred in Fallujah, and now the families of the victims are suing. Private contractors also are involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Last week, South Dakota Public Television broadcast a "Frontline" documentary highly critical of the use of armed private contractors in war zones.
George Washington University professor Steve Schooner, an expert on military contracting, told "Frontline": "We have tens of thousands of armed contractors in Iraq defending the Green Zone, defending the military, defending contractors ... but they're not part of the military command structure."
But Schooner also agreed that private contractors can help give the military capacity to "surge" - that is, to move quickly into theaters of war. That's exactly what Akal is doing at Ellsworth.
The cost of Akal's contract to guard 18 Air Force bases for 10 months, according to the Associated Press: $21 million.
Blackwater, Custer Battles and other private security companies have been controversial in Iraq, but Akal has gotten high marks from its customers in the U.S. Last year, in fact, the company was named Texas Workforce Employer of the Year.
The name "Akal," by the way, is not an acronym. It's a Sikh battle cry that means "undying," "deathless" or "infinite."
On the Web
n To learn more about Akal Security, go to:
n To learn more about the Sikh religion, go to:
Reporter Bill Harlan's column runs every other Sunday. Contact him at 394-8424 or email@example.com