The 1949 Third Geneva Convention (GCIII) does not recognize the difference between defense contractors and PMCs; it defines a category called supply contractors. If the supply contractor has been issued with a valid identity card from the armed forces which they accompany, they are entitled to be treated as prisoners of war upon capture (GCIII Article 4.1.4). If, however, the contractor engages in combat, he/she can be classified as a mercenary by the captors under the 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I) Article 47.c, unless falling under an exemption to this clause in Article 47. If captured contractors are found to be mercenaries, they are unlawful combatants and lose the right to prisoner of war status. Protocol I was not ratified by the United States because, among other issues, it does not require insurgents to obey the convention in order to be granted its protections.
There are efforts by the nations and the industry itself to better regulate the duties of contracting states and the rights of the companies and their workforce. For example, there is an initiative by the Red Cross, the non-binding Montreux Document, and the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) code of conduct.
Discharged military personnel make up the majority of Western contractors. The boom of the private security industry that took place in the 1990s can be traced back to the over 6 million military personnel that were discharged in that decade. Post Cold War military reduction has also expanded the recruiting pool for PMCs. In some cases, entire elite units, such as the South African 32nd Reconnaissance Battalion and the former Soviet “Alfa” unit have been reorganized into private military companies.
Some commentators have argued that there has been a recent exodus from many special operations forces across the globe towards these private military corporations. Units that have allegedly been severely affected include The British Special Air Service, the US Special Operations Forces  and the Canadian Joint Task Force 2. Finding work in the industry is not difficult for most former soldiers as their personal network of fellow and ex-soldiers is enough to keep them informed of available contracts.
The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is the Unified Combatant Command charged with overseeing the various Special Operations Commands (SOC or SOCOM) of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps of the United States Armed Forces. The command is part of the Department of Defense. USSOCOM is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
The idea of a unified special operations command had its origins in the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous attempted rescue of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1980. The ensuing investigation, chaired by Admiral James L. Holloway III, the retired Chief of Naval Operations, cited lack of command and control and inter-service coordination as significant factors in the failure of the mission. Since its activation on April 16, 1987, U.S. Special Operations Command has participated in many operations, from the 1989 invasion of Panama to the ongoing Iraq War.
USSOCOM conducts several covert and clandestine missions, such as unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, psychological operations, Civil Affairs, direct action, counter-terrorism and War on Drugs operations. USSOCOM's global performance in combat and noncombat areas has proven the value of a mature, culturally attuned, properly equipped, and adaptive Special Operations Force (SOF). Each branch has a Special Operations Command that is unique and capable of running its own operations, but when the different Special Operations Forces need to work together for an operation, USSOCOM becomes the joint component command of the operation, instead of a SOC of a specific branch.