WASHINGTON - Mary Beth Kineston, an Ohio resident who went to Iraq to drive trucks, thought she had endured the worst when her supply convoy was ambushed in April 2004. After car bombs exploded and insurgents began firing on the road between Baghdad and Balad, she and other military contractors were saved only when Army Black Hawk helicopters arrived.
But not long after the ambush, Ms. Kineston said, she was sexually assaulted by another driver, who remained on the job, at least temporarily, even after she reported the episode to KBR, the military contractor that employed the drivers. Later, she said she was groped by a second KBR worker. After complaining to the company about the threats and harassments endured by female employees in Iraq, she was fired.
"I felt safer on the convoys with the Army than I ever did working for KBR," said Ms. Kineston, who won a modest arbitration award against KBR. "At least if you got in trouble on a convoy, you could radio the Army and they would come and help you out. But when I complained to KBR, they didn't do anything. I still have nightmares. They changed my life forever, and they got away with it."
Ms. Kineston is among a number of American women who have reported that they were sexually assaulted by co-workers while working as contractors in Iraq but now find themselves in legal limbo, unable to seek justice or even significant compensation.
Many of the same legal and logistical obstacles that have impeded other types of investigations involving contractors in Iraq, like shootings involving security guards for Blackwater Worldwide, have made it difficult for the United States government to pursue charges related to sexual offenses. The military justice system does not apply to them, and the reach of other American laws on contractors working in foreign war zones remains unclear five years after the United States invasion of Iraq.
KBR and other companies, meanwhile, have required Iraq-bound employees to agree to take personnel disputes to private arbitration rather than sue the companies in American courts. The companies have repeatedly challenged arbitration claims of sexual assault or harassment brought by women who served in Iraq, raising fears among some women about going public with their claims.
The issue gained national attention when Jamie Leigh Jones, a 23-year-old former employee of KBR, testified at a Congressional hearing in December that she had been gang-raped by co-workers in Iraq in 2005. She appeared again on Tuesday and talked in detail about the episode, urging lawmakers to make it easier for crime victims to sue employers.
"Victims of crime perpetrated by employees of taxpayer-funded government contracts in Iraq deserve the same standard of treatment and protection governed by the same laws whether they are working in the U.S. or abroad," she said.
Since she spoke out publicly in December, other women have begun to step forward.
Ms. Jones and her lawyers said 38 women who worked as contractors in Iraq, Kuwait and other countries had contacted her since she testified to discuss their own experiences. Now, Congressional leaders are seeking answers from the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies to try to determine the scope of the threats facing women who are contractors.
Paul Brand, a Chicago psychologist who counsels contractors who have served in Iraq, said the harassment of female workers by male colleagues was common. "The extent of the harassment varies greatly from contractor to contractor, depending on how diligently they screen job candidates and management's willingness to encourage women to report problems," he said. "In many instances, very little or nothing is done."
Comprehensive statistics on sexual assaults in Iraq are unavailable because no one in the government or the contracting industry is tracking them. Court documents, interviews with those who were victims, their lawyers and other professionals, along with the limited data made available by the Bush administration, suggest a troubling trend.
The Criminal Investigation Command of the Army has reported that it investigated 124 cases of sexual assault in Iraq over the last three years. Those figures, provided to Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who has taken the lead in the Senate on the issue, include cases involving both contractors and military personnel, but do not include cases involving contractors or soldiers investigated by other branches of the military.
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the State Department has separately reported that it has investigated four cases of rape or sexual assault involving female contractors, including Ms. Jones's case. But the Pentagon has so far failed to respond to a request from Mr. Nelson for more comprehensive data, including the number of rape examinations done by military doctors in Iraq on behalf of female contractors. What is more, the Bush administration has not offered to develop a coordinated response to the problem, aides to Senator Nelson and experts have said.
Heather Browne, a spokeswoman for KBR, said the company would protect women working in Iraq. "KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees is unwavering," she said in a statement. "One instance of sexual harassment or assault is too many and unacceptable." The company declined to say how many female employees had reported that they were victims of sex crimes in Iraq.
The administration's decision to rely so heavily on outside contractors - about 180,000 contractors work in Iraq, significantly outnumbering United States military personnel in the country - probably made it inevitable that contractor crime would emerge as a problem as the war dragged on. KBR, by far the largest military contractor in Iraq, says that it now has 2,383 women there, of a total work force of 54,170.
A shooting in Baghdad last September involving Blackwater guards that left 17 Iraqis dead highlighted the lack of clarity in the laws governing contractors. In cases involving sexual assault, for example, soldiers and other military personnel can be prosecuted under the military justice system, but that system does not apply to contractors.
Instead, a little-used law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, seems to be the closest statute that could apply to contractors charged with rape, but its legal reach has been under wide debate since the Blackwater shootings.
Women who worked as contractors in Iraq say that while on the job they encountered sexual discrimination and harassment, which sometimes veered dangerously to sexual assaults and even rapes.
Linda Lindsey, of Houston, who worked for KBR in Iraq from 2004 until early 2007, said that she often saw evidence of sexual harassment or discrimination, and that male supervisors often tried to force female employees to grant sexual favors in exchange for promotions or other benefits.
She added that the company's management seemed unwilling to take action to improve working conditions for women in Iraq. "We filed complaints against one supervisor, and the complaints disappeared," Ms. Lindsey said in an interview. "The impression you got was that they really didn't want to hear it, because the money was coming in. Most of it was bad management on-site."
Pamela Jones, of Texas, a KBR logistics coordinator in Kuwait in 2003 and 2004, was sexually assaulted by a supervisor. "It was known that if you started complaining that you could lose your job," said Ms. Jones, who added that she reported it to management. "They give you an 800 number to report. But then they shoved it under the rug, and they told me I was a pest."
She later won an arbitration award from KBR, according to her Houston lawyer, Peter Costea.
Lawyers for women who have reported that they were raped or assaulted while working in Iraq say that one of the biggest obstacles they face is the arbitration requirement.
That means that women who say they were victimized have had great difficulty taking KBR to court for failing to better protect its female employees in Iraq.
KBR defended the arbitration process, saying it is fair. The fact that Ms. Kineston and Pamela Jones won awards is an indication that the system works, said Ms. Browne, the KBR spokeswoman.
Jamie Leigh Jones said she had been fighting to get her case out of the arbitration process and into a federal court, and she testified before a House committee on Tuesday in support of the need to change the laws governing private arbitration. KBR says it "disputes Ms. Jones's version of the incident she alleges."
After her Congressional testimony in December, she also testified before a federal grand jury in Florida, which has begun a criminal inquiry into her case more than two years after she first reported the rape.
Her lawyer, Todd Kelly, says he believes that the government has finally been prodded into action only because of the public attention brought by her case. "Her case came out on television before they said anything about a grand jury," he said.
© 2008 The New York Times