MOYOCK, N.C. (WAVY) - It's new name is ACADEMI . However, many know it as the company formally called Blackwater USA.
ACADEMI's new owner wants to portray the company in a different light. In a direction, they claim, of more transparency.
For the first time since the change of command, only 10 On Your Side was invited behind the gates of the ACADEMI training center in Moyock, North Carolina.
At first glance the vast land is quiet and serene.
There's a meditation garden with a short path winding around a simple pond. At the garden's entrance stands a child embracing the American flag. The silent symbolism is powerful.
Mixed within the beautiful landscape are occasional bursts of gunfire. You also hear the squeal of car tires. Both are a reminder it's work as usual during WAVY.com's visit.
On the track, head driving instructor Craig Stephens explained the importance of driving techniques. "I can use this car to save my life. And that's what I basically train the guys here for," Stephens said.
The property consists of 7,000 acres sprawled across the border of North Carolina's Camden and Currituck counties. Parts of it looks like a giant playground, a ropes course with a zip line and slide. There's also a track where high speed turns are perfected.
Every facility serves a specific purpose, often rooted in some past tragedy. There's a mock town with a church and high school, which was built to train for and respond to massacres like Columbine and Virginia Tech.
The ACADEMI contractors are mostly former members of the military and police force. They venture into conflict zones to protect American dignitaries. Their biggest client is the U.S. State Department.
Local law enforcement also roams ACADEMI's grounds. Currituck County's SWAT team uses the property to train.
"When we travel other places for training, we're usually asked about ACADEMI," Chief Deputy Matt Beickert, of Currituck County Sheriff's Office , said. "'Hey what is it like there? What do you get to do there? It must be great to have that in your backyard.' And it is."
However, before the ACADEMI flags waved on the property, the land belonged to Blackwater.
10 On Your Side was last on the site in 2007. Then it was a different owner, Erik Prince, and a different time, as well. With America engaged in two wars on two fronts, Blackwater was in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In September of that same year, Blackwater found unwanted infamy. The company's guards were accused of shooting 17 Iraqis to death in Nisour Square in Baghdad.
The shooting proved to be a deadly blow to Blackwater's reputation and their bottom line. The company was later banned from Iraq.
Two years later, there came a name change, but it was just that.
Finding it difficult to re-brand, Xe, as it was then called, went up for sale. In late 2010 the company was sold to a private equity group.
"From a new owner, we look at it as opportunity," said Jason DeYonker , one of the new owners.
DeYonker helped set up Blackwater's first government contract following the 2000 bombing of the Norfolk-based USS Cole. He then broke away from the company. Nine years later, he's back and serves as one of the individuals in charge. He says he's determined to take this company on a different course.
"Do we think that mistakes have probably been made in the past? Of course...the new mission is how do we fix that? How do we put the infrastructure, the governance, the transparency, work with our clients to make sure...that we are doing the best we can from an organizational standpoint while we do not change what we are doing down range?," DeYonker said.
There's no disputing it, DeYonker and his partners' efforts are a major public relations push. They desperately want to change their image.
"When you walk through these halls and you look at the people and you meet them, I think people realize real quick, 'Wow. It's a different company,'" DeYonker told WAVY.com. "If you rewind 18 months there's probably one senior executive that's still here...and that's our general counsel."
Not an intentional gutting, DeYonker said, simply a re-establishing of the new corporate culture - which stresses openness.
"There's no black veil over what we do," he continued. "It's very open. It's public contracts."
Still, ACADEMI personnel asked us not to shoot video of their clients in action. They did, however, take 10 On Your Side to any training facility that wasn't being used.
The meditation garden features 43 stones. Each one represents an employee killed on the job.
"It's sacred ground," DeYonker said. " It's a powerful reminder of why we want to do things right, we want to keep it going. We want to honor those who have sacrificed."
DeYonker went on to say the company hopes to get back into Iraq, so long as the Iraqis welcome their presence. That has not yet happened.
ACADEMI plans to expand further. Not only will they continue to build on their
site - enhancing the landing strip and adding more lodging - but they also plan to align themselves with more commercially-based business ventures. They're hopeful this will yield a positive impact on the two North Carolina counties they operate within.
As for former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince , DeYonker says he has "absolutely nothing" to do with the company's operations.
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