In the desert near Balad, the heat rises to a brutal 137 degrees. It blisters your lips, etches cracks in your skin. This is biblical heat, the kind that can drive a man insane.
At Camp Anaconda, one of the biggest American bases in Iraq, there was only one place to get water. The Tigris River ran just outside the wire perimeter. Every day, huge rigs — the kind that look like they should be toting oil — lined up at the depot to be filled with the filtered water needed for showers, cooking, flushing toilets, sustaining life.
One night in 2004, truck driver Mary Beth Kineston was working second shift. She's a tiny woman. With her freckles and bulky protective vest, she looked like a child as she sat behind the wheel in her cab. But she had driven trucks for three decades before signing up with Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a Houston contractor that supplies over 30,000 civilian workers to the war effort in Iraq.
Sometime after 9 p.m., Kineston was filling up at the depot, sitting on top of her rig so she could tell the attendant when the tank was full. She was climbing down the ladder at the back of the truck, when a driver she had never met before approached her.
Ahmet Yanik was only an inch or two taller than her, but muscled like a wrestling coach, with a trace of a mustache. He worked for KBR's Turkish subcontractor, Kulak Company.
She yelled when he grabbed her leg and moved his hands upward. But the other drivers were sealed away in their air-conditioned cabs, unable to hear. Kineston scrambled down and beelined toward her cab. Yanik followed.
His hands were all over her now, trying to undo her pants. "No, no, no," she kept saying. She shouted that she was married, pointed to her wedding ring. It didn't matter. He slipped his hand inside her pants.
She kicked, she struggled, she fought so hard that she bruised her arm where it hit the steering wheel. Years later, she still wonders if she could have done more.
When Yanik finished what he came to do, Kineston managed to push him out and slam the door. She didn't even bother to put her pants back on properly. She just started driving.
It took her 20 minutes to reach KBR headquarters. There, shaking and crying, she spent three hours explaining to supervisors what had happened. For a traditional Catholic mother of three, this wasn't easy. "I was so embarrassed," she remembers. "I had to work with these guys every day."
Afterward, no one even offered to walk her home. Two days later, Yanik was back on the job.
Camp Anaconda is 68 miles north of Baghdad, in the Sunni Triangle, long known as the most dangerous place in Iraq. For a while, insurgents bombed the dining hall every day at 6 p.m. Once, Kineston's friend, a sniper for the Army, invited her to watch as he shot two men who were planting explosives in the fields outside the base. "Any given moment, they could've dropped a bomb, and I woulda been dead," she says.
She and her husband, John, were there for one reason: cash. Back home in Olmsted Falls, she'd heard radio ads promising $100,000 salaries for signing up with KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton. This was not long after the 2003 invasion, before "Mission accomplished" became a punch line. With Halliburton's former CEO Dick Cheney in the White House, KBR was winning multibillion-dollar government contracts in Iraq — more than any other private firm.
At the time, Kineston was hauling loads of clothes and produce cross-country. With a house to pay off and kids' weddings to fund, doubling her salary sounded like a good idea.
When she arrived in Iraq in January 2004, she was assigned to haul loads to other bases — first ice, then fuel. It was a sweet gig, until her convoy was attacked. Car bombs hit the front and back of the convoy, trapping the trucks between. The drivers, none of whom carried guns, ran around in panic until Black Hawks flew in and started shooting. They lost nine drivers that day, Kineston says.
Afterward, she and the other women were confined to the base for their safety. Kineston was assigned to the public works department, hauling water.
Her crew consisted of 45 men and two women. These men were different from the drivers Kineston had known for decades. Her supervisor would expose himself in front of her to pee, she says. Another co-worker left a sketch of a naked, spread-eagled woman in her truck. Meanwhile, she was constantly enduring comments like "You need to go to admin, because the guy's got a hard-on waiting for you."
This wasn't how drivers in America treated 50-year-old Catholic mothers. And with her husband away on convoys most of the time, he could do little to protect her.
Kineston sent a steady stream of e-mails complaining to KBR higher-ups, to little avail. (KBR records show that the guy who drew the sketch was given three days off without pay.) "You know, I enjoy my job, but I don't want to go home because some drunk decided to rape me for a good time," she once wrote to project manager Gerald Warner. "This whole thing has made me more stressed out than I already am."
After Yanik assaulted her, her supervisors promised they would take care of the problem. Yet two days later, Yanik was in line at the water depot, two trucks ahead of her. She panicked and called the military police to arrest him.
Her frayed nerves never fully recovered. "I felt safer on convoy . . . under military rule than I ever did on base," she says.
She grew afraid to walk anywhere alone at night and insisted on parking her truck next to the trailer where she slept. Her supervisor said this was against the rules and punished her with three days unpaid leave.
One morning when she was walking to the gym, some co-workers stopped and offered her a ride. Soon they were laughing and talking together. "I wasn't really thinking that they were gonna do anything," she says. "Once again, I was stupid."
Suddenly, one of the guys — another KBR employee who, she believes, was from Mexico — slid his hand down the front of her gym shorts. He seemed to think this was hilarious. Kineston disagreed.
"What the fuck are you doing?" she said and jumped out.
She went to KBR's site manager and told him she needed her own pickup to drive around the base. She had a truck by that afternoon.
But her co-workers weren't happy. They held a meeting with the camp's HR rep. For a bunch of truck drivers in a war zone, it wasn't the most macho scene. Twenty-one men gathered to complain that they were "suffering from inequities" caused by the two women on the crew, Kineston and Wanda Brewer.
They griped about the women getting their own trucks, being late to meetings, and receiving unapproved time off. "Many feel that Wanda and Mary are undermining those in authority by telling them they do not have to do what they are told to do," company notes from the meeting said.
The guys even said they feared the women "because if things don't go their way, Wanda and Mary will come to HR and report them, and get them in trouble with management."
But if supervisors noticed a sixth-grade tone to the meeting, they never mentioned it. Five weeks later, Kineston received a written reprimand. It included a laundry list of sins: abandoning a water truck for several hours, refusing to park in the correct area, and "insubordination." Months earlier, she had been written up for "failure to follow instructions" and "disregard toward the chain of command" because she talked back when a supervisor ordered her to water some grass. (She says the Army colonel told her not to water it, because Iraqis had been hired to do the job.)
Worst of all, she had recently been seen speeding and passing other vehicles on the base, both of which were against company rules. Though Kineston said she was driving slowly and one of the witness statements was written the day before the alleged speeding occurred, it didn't make any difference. She was fired.
In the months after she returned to the States, women from all over the country began recounting similar horror stories.
Jamie Leigh Jones was a sweet-tongued 20-year-old from Texas when she flew to Camp Hope, in Baghdad's Green Zone, as an administrative assistant for KBR in 2005. Four days after she arrived, she was sitting outside her barracks with some co-workers when one of them offered her a drink. "Don't worry — I saved all my Roofies for Dubai," he told her, according to her congressional testimony. She assumed he was kidding.
But the next morning, she wasn't so sure. She woke up groggy and sore all over. In the bathroom, she discovered she was bleeding, with bruises on her legs and wrists. She returned to her room to find a man she didn't know in her bunk. Had they had sex?, she asked. Yes, came the reply.
KBR security took Jones to the hospital, where the doctor collected various samples with a rape kit. She even took photos and informed Jones that she was "quite torn up down there." It was obvious that Jones had been raped. Later, doctors would deem her breasts so badly damaged from the attack that she required reconstructive surgery.
But somehow, Jones would become a suspect in her own rape. According to her testimony, KBR security escorted her to a trailer and locked her in under the watchful eyes of two guards. As the hours passed, she requested a phone to call her dad back in the States. She says a KBR rep refused. Finally, a guard lent Jones his cell. When she reached her outraged father, he called her congressman, Republican Ted Poe of Texas, who called the State Department. Two State officials rescued Jones from the trailer. She soon left the country.
Then there was Pamela Jones (no relation to Jamie), another Texan, who went to Kuwait in 2003 to work as a logistics coordinator for KBR. Her job was to make sure the troops had what they needed when they arrived at her base, and she did it with as much Houston hospitality as she could muster.
"I wanted to be where our people, our kids are," she says. "I'm a momma, you know."
Jones was in her early 50s, a single mom who admits, "I ain't the prettiest thing walking." The soldiers called her "Miss Pam." Unfortunately, not everyone extended the same level of courtesy: Her married supervisor had a habit of hitting on her.
Her job involved driving from base to base; he would insist she ride with him. When they were alone in the car, he would dig his fingers into her breasts, bruising her shoulders and thighs. When she fought back — once even punching him in the jaw — it only got worse.
"I begged him . . . please don't do this," she says.
But it went on for nearly a month. Jones' co-workers warned her not to complain, because she would get fired, and "Don't nobody want to lose their job on account of a fool," she says. But when she went home for vacation, she called a hotline KBR had set up to handle such complaints, providing details and names. Nothing happened.
When she returned to Kuwait, another co-worker invited himself over to her room to watch a movie. She fell asleep, only to wake up with him on top of her, fondling her breast. This time she reported the attack immediately. KBR removed her from the base for her "safety."
The pattern would continue. A Florida woman sued Halliburton and KBR, claiming that when she was stationed in Iraq in 2005, a drunken co-worker stole a key from an unlocked storage box, broke into her apartment, and raped her. The man she accused remained free, according to the suit, and she was never told whether he was prosecuted.
Meanwhile, a woman in Oklahoma sued KBR, alleging that while she was in southern Iraq, she suffered the same treatment as Kineston. Two of her supervisors made "unwelcome sexual overtures, both verbal and physical," according to her lawsuit, and she claimed managers' sexual harassment of women was "pervasive and systematic" throughout her division.
When she complained to HR, nothing happened. Yet she was "branded a troublemaker and treated as an outcast," her lawyer wrote in court documents. She was eventually fired after she had an accident in a company vehicle.
"Their mentality was 'I'm 9,000 miles from the United States, and I can do whatever I want,'" Kineston says.
Letty Surman, a former KBR supervisor who worked in Kuwait and Iraq from 2004 to 2006, admits in an affidavit that sexual harassment was the "major complaint," though Halliburton "has a policy of sweeping problems under the rug." She talks about a climate of retaliation, where people are heckled or sent to remote camps if they complain. A blog where Halliburton employees could anonymously post gripes was taken down because it embarrassed the company. In fact, KBR has gained such a reputation as a good ol' boys club, she says, that workers have nicknamed it Kinfolk, Brothers & Relatives.
In that kind of company, a woman complaining that her co-workers are behaving like junior-league sex offenders doesn't stand a chance.
For the 180,000 private contractors involved in the war, the long arm of American law doesn't reach to the desert.
This became painfully clear last fall, when contractors from Blackwater Worldwide opened fire in a Baghdad neighborhood, killing 17 civilians and setting off a storm of finger-pointing about who was responsible for punishing the contractors.
Experts are still debating whether military law can be applied to contractors. And though the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act allows for the civilian prosecution of crimes committed by people "accompanying the armed forces," the Justice Department has been reluctant to file charges.
Back home in Texas, Jamie Leigh Jones learned just how dysfunctional the legal system can be. State Department officials working on her case first said the evidence had been processed in the fall of 2006, but then said they didn't know a rape kit existed. Once they found the kit, they said the pictures and doctor's note were missing. Three years after she found a rapist in her bed, no one has been prosecuted for the crime.
"It's really sick, because these men know that they can get away with anything," she says.
She launched the Jamie Leigh Foundation to help others in her situation, and says that dozens of women have contacted her about being sexually harassed or abused while working for Halliburton/KBR.
She has been testifying before Congress, pushing for changes that will expand the law to cover all government contractors overseas and require the FBI to set up on-site teams to investigate crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. A bill sponsored by Representative David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, passed the House overwhelmingly last October, and Barack Obama introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Meanwhile, women victims can't even get the satisfaction of suing KBR. The company requires all employees to sign an agreement saying that their complaints will go through private arbitration — meaning no judge, no jury, and no public record of the trial.
Jones has sued KBR and Halliburton, claiming the companies created a "boys will be boys" environment that allowed her assault to occur. She's fighting to keep her case in the public courts and out of arbitration. Pamela Jones won an undisclosed settlement through an arbitrator, as did the woman in Oklahoma.
Kineston was also forced into arbitration. It wasn't pleasant. After nearly three years mired in the system, she settled for $35,000 — less than half the salary she would have received if she'd stayed in Iraq. Arbitrator Marshall Bennett ruled in her favor, but with a rather strange compromise: He found that she had been sexually harassed on the job and deserved compensation for her "emotional distress," but that KBR was not wrong to fire her. He argued that she had a pattern of disobeying orders (mainly, parking her truck where it was prohibited). Plus, he said the speeding incident was "dangerously reckless."
Kineston's lawyer, Michael Conway, calls this ruling "bullshit," contending the arbitrator was going soft on a politically powerful company. He's convinced a jury "would've given her the big bucks." But KBR never wanted the public to hear her story.
The company's own investigators conceded that Yanik sexually assaulted Kineston. They noted in a written report that he was permanently banned from Camp Anaconda after the attack. But that's pretty much the only thing the company and Kineston agree on.
KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said she was not available to be interviewed and would answer only e-mail questions. The company does "not agree with the facts as presented by Ms. Kineston, or the results of the arbitration," she writes. But she refuses to comment on whether the co-worker who stuck his hand down Kineston's pants remains on the payroll. She wouldn't even say whether the incident was ever investigated. "KBR will not comment on specific issues raised in the arbitration or on the employment status of current or former employees," she wrote.
Gerald Warner, the former project manager at Camp Anaconda, did not respond to a written request for an interview.
Kineston's supervisor no longer works for KBR. He has his own construction company in Brady, Texas, but no listed phone number. He did not respond to Scene's letter requesting an interview. But in depositions from the case, he vehemently denied exposing himself to Kineston. "That did not happen, and it is completely bogus," he said.
As for the notion that women are routinely harassed and abused while working for KBR, Browne denies that too. Her office has issued a press release saying that it will "vigorously defend" against allegations made by Jamie Leigh Jones, which "we believe are without merit."
But she refuses to say how many reports of sexual harassment or abuse the company has received.
Back home in Olmsted Falls, Kineston has a tough time swallowing the company's claims. Her tour in Iraq left marks even her kids couldn't ignore. Once, she would have described herself as the kind of boundlessly cheerful lady who "could get to know you in three seconds and . . . befriend you in four." Now she protects that woman with a hard, cynical shell.
She's gained weight, along with permanent bags under her eyes. She tried talking to a psychiatrist; she even tried drinking. It was a long time before she could make love to her husband again.
To make matters worse, she couldn't get another truck-driving job. Employers would hear why she left KBR — those dreaded words "sexual harassment" — and "the door was slammed," she says.
So she got a license to drive school buses. Now she totes little ones to Y programs in Lakewood. She made only $11,000 last year.
But she stopped seeking comfort in the bottle, and plans to testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this week. She wants to make sure women who suffer as she did can press charges against their attackers. "Your tax dollars and my tax dollars pay KBR's salary. That's what makes me the angriest," she says.
Her husband, meanwhile, is back in Iraq, still trying to pay the bills.
Sitting in their indomitably chipper living room, with its American flag pillow and framed pictures of Amish country, she mentions casually that his convoy was once attacked. His truck blew up right behind the cab where he was sitting, but he escaped unscathed.
She doesn't cry when she talks about this. She chokes up occasionally when speaking of Yanik's assault, but mostly her tears are saved for memories of a friendly sergeant who referred her to an Army psychiatrist, and for the colleagues that died when her convoy was attacked. She behaves, in other words, like a soldier — only the kind without medals. "I asked to go to the war zone, but I didn't ask to be treated like scum," she says. Then she offers to show a video of her sniper friend blowing up the bad guys.