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November/ December 2013 The War of Rape

What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?

By Stephanie Mencimer


The whole truth: Jamie Leigh Jones took a former Halliburton Company subsidiary to court in June 2011, claiming she had been raped in Iraq.

In December 2007, a doe-eyed young woman named Jamie Leigh Jones appeared on ABC’s 20/20 to tell a terrifying story. Two years before, she said, at the age of twenty, she went to Iraq to work in the Green Zone as a contractor for Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), then a subsidiary of Halliburton. Soon after arriving, she explained, men clad only in their underwear had begun harassing her in her nearly all-male barracks. On her third night in the country, some of those men invited her to a social gathering outside the barracks and offered her what they called a “special” drink.

As she described the fateful evening, Jones’s tone matched her somber, conservative dark dress. “I probably didn’t even drink the entire thing,” she told ABC’s Brian Ross. “Just a few sips. And I don’t remember anything after that.” She said she woke up groggy, confused, naked, and sore. “I felt like I’d been hit by a truck,” Jones said. She stumbled to the bathroom, where she said she realized she was bruised and bleeding between her legs. “Then I knew I had been raped,” Jones said, her voice shaking. A doctor at an Army hospital, she said, examined her, administered a rape kit, and declared that she’d been gang-raped. “She confirmed that I was raped both vaginally and anally,” Jones told Ross.

The ordeal continued. Jones said that after the doctor treated her, KBR security placed her in a shipping container, where two armed men—she referred to them as “Gurkhas”—stood outside her door and prevented her from leaving. “I felt imprisoned,” Jones said, adding that she thought KBR was trying to cover up the assault. She said she was not allowed to call her family until, finally, one of the guards felt sorry for her and let her use a cell phone.

Jones called her father in Texas and told him she’d been raped. He then called Texas Republican Representative Ted Poe, who sent the State Department in to rescue her. Jones went home, even though she said KBR told her she would lose her job for doing so. ABC reported that no one had prosecuted the men who allegedly violated her.

A few days later, Jones elaborated on her story to members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. She testified that one of the men who gave her a drink that night in Iraq had said to her, “Don’t worry. I’m saving my ‘roofies’ for Dubai.” As a result, she believed she’d been given Rohypnol, or “roofies,” otherwise known as the date-rape drug. The attack, she testified, had left her pectoral muscles torn and her breast implants disfigured. She blamed the State Department for failing to investigate the crime, and declared that parts of the rape kit, which the Army doctor had given to KBR security, had disappeared.

As an innocent abroad, Jones was a perfect heroine. And she confronted an unusually good villain. KBR had been plagued with allegations of fraud and overbilling involving its Pentagon contracts in Iraq. It also was closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been Halliburton’s CEO before coming to the White House. The company was linked in the public mind with fraud, plunder, mismanagement, and a war gone wrong. It didn’t seem surprising that its employees might have gang-raped a guileless new arrival.

Jones soon appeared on Dan Abrams’s show on MSNBC and on CBS’s Early Show, and dozens of other news outlets featured her story prominently, including CNN and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, where the outspoken host compared Halliburton to barbarians and pillagers. Senator Hillary Clinton, among others, wrote a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, demanding an investigation. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska petitioned both the Pentagon inspector general and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look into the matter.

Jones’s decision to speak out encouraged other victims to come forward. A few months after her first appearance on Capitol Hill, Congress held hearings on closing legal loopholes in laws that protected American civilian contractors who commit violent crimes overseas. In April 2008, the congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus recognized Jones with an award for raising awareness of the plight of victimized American contractors abroad. The Pentagon started tracking assaults on civilian contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan, in large part due to Jones’s case.

In the meantime, frustrated with the Justice Department, Jones had taken action on her own; in May 2007 she had filed a civil suit against KBR. But her hopes for redress were stymied. When she signed up to go to Iraq, Jones had unknowingly signed a contract that contained a mandatory binding arbitration clause. The fine print required her to bring any claims against KBR before a private arbitrator—hired by the company—whose decision could not be appealed. Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer advocates who had long fought mandatory arbitration quickly gave Jones their support. What started as a personal struggle became a struggle for women and then a struggle for everyone denied their day in court.

In 2009, Jones’s advocacy work earned her a new ally: Minnesota’s newly elected Democratic senator and former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken. Upon arriving in the Senate, Franken had been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where he quickly became interested in mandatory arbitration. Inspired by media accounts of her story, Franken accompanied Jones to the Hill to testify. “You’re an amazing young woman,” he gushed from the dais. Franken then lambasted the witness sent by the business community to defend arbitration. Franken grilled Mark de Bernardo, the president of the Council for Employment Law Equity:

You said that the result of arbitration is a better workplace. She has been housed with four hundred men. She told KBR twice she was being sexually harassed. She was drugged by men that KBR employment people knew did this kind of thing. She was raped, gang-raped. She had to have reconstructive surgery, sir.… She was locked in a shipping container, with an armed guard. If that’s a better workplace, what was it like before?

Franken soon earned his first legislative victory in the Senate by successfully inserting an amendment into a Defense Department spending bill that banned the Pentagon from contracting with companies that forced employees to arbitrate sexual assault claims. The thirty white, male Republican senators who voted against it were vilified in the media as rape apologists, lampooned on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and mocked on a parody Web site, www.republicansforrape.org.

In October 2009, liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow hosted Jones on a segment of her show on MSNBC; during the show, headlines flashed on the screen of newspapers from Tennessee to Idaho, where editorials decried the votes of their home-state senators against the Franken amendment. She showed letters to the editor calling out senators who voted against the bill for embarrassing their state.

Stephanie Mencimer is a reporter at Mother Jones and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

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