Private military contractors can earn substantially more money than members of the armed services.

A Government Accountability Office study last year found that contractors were earning $12,000 to $13,000 a month working on security convoys in Iraq and as much as $33,000 a month guarding high-ranking government officials.

That compares to $4,670 in monthly base pay and housing allowance earned by a typical Navy SEAL with 10 years of experience – the sort of person private military companies like to hire.

That raises the question: Are private companies like Blackwater draining manpower from the military services?

Blackwater and its competitors say no.

“It’s not true. It’s an urban legend that’s been created by the media,” said Chris Taylor, a Blackwater vice president. “People leave the military for a wide variety of reasons. We’re not interested in luring people away from the military.”

The GAO study found that attrition in military jobs preferred by security outfits rose in 2004 after declining for two years, but was no higher than in 2001.

“The Navy will never compete financially with the civilian sector in sheer monetary terms,” said Lt. Taylor Clark, a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command. But Clark said an assortment of extra incentives, including re-enlistment bonuses up to $90,000, have helped the Navy keep SEALs in uniform.

One thing is clear: Private military companies are pulling people from civilian law enforcement agencies.

Michael McKenna, president of International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 412, said at least half a dozen Norfolk police officers have departed for Blackwater in the past two to three years. Most had 10 or more years on the force.

“They can offer them a whole lot more money,” McKenna said. “I’m sorry to see them go, but I can’t blame them when Norfolk’s paying them $30,000 a year. I think I’d go too.”

Spokesmen for the Virginia Beach and Chesapeake police departments said they also have lost officers to Blackwater.

The exodus extends across the country. Sheriff Elaine Savage of Bonner County, Idah o, said she has lost five experienced deputies to Blackwater and one of its competitors, DynCorp International, in the past two years. All five turned up in Iraq.

“They call it the Bonner County substation,” Savage said.

With her department’s typical salary of $43,000 a year, she can’t compete.

“They’re looking out for their families, but it makes it tough for me,” she said. “I have a tremendous investment in these guys, and it just walks away for $180,000 a year.”