If you haven’t found yourself in the middle of the shit in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, or Syria recently, you probably have little understanding of what we do. Or that we’re sometimes called upon to perform missions too sensitive and top secret for even Delta Force or SEAL Team 6.

We’re mostly guys, and some women, who live in your neighborhoods, drive fast cars, work out a lot, and spend long periods of time away from home. We tend to keep to ourselves and avoid socializing with the neighbors. Some of you probably suspect that we’re spies or former convicts, drug dealers, or maybe even Internet entrepreneurs.

What we really are: PMCs—private military contractors, or operators. There are hundreds of thousands of us living in the United States working for companies like G4S, DynCorp, Unity Resources Group, Erinys, Triple Canopy, and Aegis Defense Services. They hire us to do the dirty and dangerous jobs the military and intelligence services can’t or don’t want to do. Some of us are former Tier 1 operators—SEALs, Delta Force, marines, or Army Rangers—with extensive combat experience. My background includes fifteen years of service in the British Royal Marines, British special forces, and the Special Boat Service (SBS).

We defuse terrorist bombs, guard dignitaries, protect convoys traveling through perilous territory, battle drug runners, provide security to oil facilities, fly manned reconnaissance planes, and maintain military aircraft and equipment.

In my case, I’ve fought beside Afghan and Syrian rebels, rescued kidnapped children from inside Pakistan, battled Somali pirates, shoveled the ashes of my best mates off the streets of Baghdad, tracked down al-Qaeda high-value targets (HVTs)—including Osama bin Laden—and performed other “zero-footprint” missions for individuals and governments around the world. One of those zero-footprint missions put me in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died.

It’s a hard transition from military to PMC. In the former, we were hailed as heroes. As private operators, we’re regarded as shadowy figures or mercenaries who are in it solely for the money, which isn’t always true. Maybe the pay is better, but we’re pretty much doing the same work and employed by the same governments. And we’re motivated by the same standard of service to the ideals we hold true.

As PMCs we operate deep undercover without government backup or air rescue, public credit for what we do, or military honors when we die in combat. Maybe, as some commentators have suggested, we’re unsung heroes in the war against terrorism. That’s not my call.