November/ December 2013 The War of Rape

What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?

By Stephanie Mencimer

Maddow told viewers, “Now, much of the outraged response to that vote across the country is due to the fact that this legislation was prompted by a horrible real-life case, the case of Jamie Leigh Jones.” Before asking Jones about her reaction to the vote of the thirty senators, Maddow noted that none of the GOP members of Congress would come on the show to defend their votes. Jones repeated the story she had first told in 2007. In 2010, Louisiana Democratic senatorial candidate Charlie Melancon used clips from the Maddow interview and other TV footage of Jones in a campaign ad during his unsuccessful run against the incumbent, Republican David Vitter, who had voted against the Franken amendment.

Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which helps combat sexual assault in the armed forces, credits Jones with helping pass legislation that could help all women, military or civilian, serving in overseas war zones. Rape, she noted, is seriously underreported. In the military, she says, the Department of Defense estimates that only one in seven victims reports the crime. “By coming forward, she did an enormous service,” Bhagwati says.

Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2009, Jones was also fighting KBR to nullify her own arbitration clause. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have shown little sympathy for individuals attempting to get out of mandatory arbitration, and it’s rare for plaintiffs to succeed in such challenges. But in September 2009, Jones did just that, winning in the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that being sexually assaulted in her bedroom wasn’t part of her job, and thus wasn’t covered by the arbitration clause. “Jamie fought like hell to keep sexual assaults from being covered up by arbitration clauses, and she succeeded,” says John Vail, the Washington attorney who argued her case.

After four years of legal wrangling, Jones had overcome every obstacle to bringing her case to court, and the trial was set for the summer of 2011. She had won justice for other rape victims; she had won rights for other workers; now she could win justice for herself.

In early 2011, Jones was featured in Hot Coffee, a documentary film about corporations stifling people’s right to sue. (I was involved with the making of Hot Coffee, after I wrote a book about the civil justice system, and I appeared in the film with her.) In the movie, Jones tells her story from her living room in a Houston suburb as her young daughter coos happily near her and her husband works on the family Christmas tree. She lays out the raw, traumatic details of her four days in Iraq as the film cuts back and forth to footage of her 2009 trip to testify on Capitol Hill.

By far the most powerful moment in the film comes when Jones describes waking up on her fourth morning in Iraq, going to the bathroom, realizing that something horrific has happened to her, and then coming back to her room to find a man in her bed. “It was the worst moment in my entire life,” she says. “To actually see a man brazen enough to still be there in the room after raping me. I know now the reason why he was still in the room was because he would be able to get away with it.”

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. HBO then aired it nearly a dozen times over the summer of 2011 and again in the fall, giving Jones’s story a huge new audience just as her case was going to trial in June.

Jones was dressed in elegant pearls and a light gray suit when she arrived in court on the first day. She looked grave as she headed in to face an ordeal of intimate sexual scrutiny of the sort that often deters rape victims from coming forward. Jones spent three days on the stand, where lawyers grilled her about what sort of underwear she wore and showed the jury blown-up color photos of her breasts. She wept as she recounted waking up in Iraq and realizing that she had been raped. But Jones also demonstrated the same steely determination she’d shown on TV.

“[H]aving my entire life exposed, every bad thing I’ve ever done or every little inconsistency I may have told, if that’s the only sacrifice that I have to make to make KBR stop doing this to people, and so that the jury can decide that they need to stop, then it will all be worth it,” she declared. Her lawyers asked the jury to award Jones $145 million, money Jones had promised to donate to a foundation she’d established to help other victims.

After ten hours of deliberation, the jury gave her nothing at all. And in September of that year, the judge ordered Jones to pay KBR $145,000 for its legal costs.

Jones’s story got its start in the spring of 2004, when she was hired as an administrative assistant in the IT department at KBR in Houston. The job paid reasonably well, with lots of opportunity for overtime, as the company tried to meet the demand for its services created by the Iraq War. Jones was living with her mother, in a one-bedroom apartment, and sleeping on an air mattress. Money had been tight. But soon after gaining the new position, she traded in her Mustang for a Jaguar. In November 2004, she borrowed money from a credit union to have breast augmentation surgery. But a few months later the work at KBR slowed down, and Jones faced the prospect of being laid off; she transferred to another division, ended up on the night shift, and ultimately sought a position overseas. She requested posts in Kuwait, Afghanistan, or Uzbekistan. She got Iraq.

In July 2005, Jones was sent to a processing center in a mall in Houston, where she was briefed on the potential dangers of the job: sandstorms, camel spiders, enemy fire, biological warfare. She learned that Baghdad’s summer temperatures range from a low of 98° Fahrenheit to a high of 112°. Contractors worked twelve-hour days seven days a week, and they could be assigned to live in tents crammed with eight or ten people, large barracks, or containerized housing units. Many people didn’t last a year. Still, the money was good. When Jones agreed to go to Iraq, her salary tripled, to more than $100,000 a year.

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


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