It was an early January morning in 2008 when 42-year-old Dawn Leamon, a paramedic for a defense contractor in southern Iraq, woke up to find her entire room shaking. The shipping container that served as her living quarters was reverberating from nearby rocket attacks, and she was jolted awake to discover an awful reality. "Right then my whole life was turned upside down," she says.
What follows is the story she told me on Monday in a lengthy, painful on-the-record interview, conducted in a lawyer's office in Houston, Texas, while she was back from Iraq on a brief leave this week.
That dawn, naked, covered in blood and feces, bleeding from her anus, she found a US soldier she did not know lying naked in the bed next to her: his gun lay on the floor beside the bed, she could not rouse him and all she could remember of the night before was screaming and screaming as the soldier anally penetrated her while a colleague who worked for defense contractor KBR held her hand — but instead of helping her, as she had hoped, he jammed his penis in her mouth.
Over the next few weeks Leamon would be told to keep quiet about the incident by a KBR supervisor. The camp's military liaison officer also told her not to speak about what had happened, she says. And she would follow these instructions. "Because then, all of a sudden, if you've done exactly what you've been instructed not to do — tell somebody — then you're in danger," Leamon says.
As a brand-new arrival at Camp Harper, she had not yet forged many connections and was working in a red zone under regular rocket fire alongside the very men who had participated in the attack. (At one point, as the sole medical provider, she was even forced to treat one of her alleged assailants for a minor injury.) She waited two and a half weeks, until she returned to a much larger facility, to report the incident. "It's very easy for bad things to happen down there and not have it be even slightly suspicious."
Over the next month and a half, she says, she faced a series of hurdles. She would be discouraged from reporting the incident by several KBR employees, she says. She would be confused by the lack of any written medical protocol for sexual assault (as the only medical person on site, she treated herself with doxycycline). She would wander through a tangled maze of interviews with KBR and Army investigators about the incident without any clear explanation of her rights. She would be asked to sign several documents agreeing not to publicly discuss the incident, she says. She describes having her computer — which she saw as her lifeline, her main access to the outside world — confiscated by KBR staff as "evidence" within hours of receiving her first e-mail from a stateside lawyer she had reached out to for help.
And eventually she would find herself temporarily assigned to sleeping quarters between two Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officials, who, she says, assured her that it was for her own safety, since her alleged assailants were at the same camp for questioning; they roamed freely. When she wanted to move about the camp to get meals etc., she was escorted.
Leamon felt very alone. But she was not.
In fact, a growing number of women employees working for US defense contractors in the Middle East are coming forward with complaints of violence directed at them. As the Iraq War drags on, and as stories of US security contractors who seem to operate with impunity continue to emerge (like Blackwater and its deadly attack against Iraqi civilians on September 16, 2007), a rash of new sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints are being lodged against overseas contractors — by their own employees. Todd Kelly, a lawyer in Houston, says his firm alone has fifteen clients with sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation complaints (for reporting assault and/or harassment) against Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC (KBR), as well as Cayman Island-based Service Employees International Inc., a KBR shell company. (While Leamon is technically an SEII employee, she is supervised by KBR staff as a KBR employee.)
Jamie Leigh Jones, whose story made the news in December — when she alleged that her 2005 gang rape by Halliburton/KBR co-workers in Iraq was being covered up by the company and the US government — also initially believed hers was an isolated incident. But today, Jones reports that she has formed a nonprofit to support the many other women with similar stories. Currently, she has forty US contractor employees in her database who have contacted her alleging a variety of sexual assault or sexual harassment incidents — and claim that Halliburton, KBR and SEII have either failed to help them or outright obstructed them.
Most of these complaints never see the light of day, thanks to the fine print in employee contracts that compels employees into binding arbitration instead of allowing their complaints to be tried in a public courtroom. Criminal prosecutions are practically nonexistent, as the US Justice Department has turned a blind eye to these cases.
Jones's case was the subject of a House Judiciary hearing in December. Right now, Jones's lawyers are awaiting a decision on whether she will get her day in court or be forced to submit to binding arbitration, which KBR is insisting on. Likewise, the company is pressuring Dawn Leamon into pursuing her claims against the company through its Dispute Resolution Program based on the contract she signed before she went to Iraq. Critics argue that the company's arbitration system allows it to minimize bad publicity and lets assailants off the hook.
Leamon, who retained a lawyer only two weeks ago, is weighing her options.
KBR attorney Celia Ballí, responding to a letter from Leamon's lawyer, wrote in a letter dated March 17, "The Company takes Ms. Leamon's allegations very seriously and has and will continue to cooperate with the proper law enforcement authorities in the investigation of her allegations to the extent possible." Ballí noted that the matter has been turned over to the CID and said that Leamon has been "afforded with counseling and referral services through the Company's Employee Assistance Program." Ballí wrote in the letter that there are "inaccuracies" in the description Leamon has put forward regarding her treatment after the alleged sexual assault. "Therefore, the Company requests that you fully investigate all the facts alleged by Ms. Leamon as the Company intends to pursue all available remedies should false statements be publicized."
Such "investigation" may prove difficult for her attorney. In the next sentence, the company says it is "not in a position to release any personnel or investigative records regarding Ms. Leamon's allegations at this time." In response to a request for comment on this story, a company spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that Leamon's "allegations are currently under investigation by the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Therefore, KBR cannot comment on the specifics of the allegations or investigation." The spokesperson added, "Any allegation of sexual harassment or assault is taken seriously and investigated thoroughly." The trouble, however, is that "appropriate law enforcement authorities" have not proved willing to address this type of crime committed by contractors in Iraq.
For her part, Leamon can't quite call herself a victim yet. In the course of several conversations over several days, she never once says the word "victim" out loud. Let alone "rape." Let alone "gang rape."