Published June 30, 2005
NEW YORK – For three days, a group of 16 American contractors in Iraq feared they had stumbled into a different world — one where the U.S. military viewed them, and not Islamic extremists, as the enemy.
The ordeal began May 28 when a group of Marines suspected the contractors for Zapata Engineering (search) of shooting at them and Iraqi civilians in Fallujah. The Marines allegedly bound and roughed up the contractors, who were given orange jumpsuits to wear. They also received a prayer rug and a copy of the Koran (search) and were placed in a cell next to Iraqi insurgent suspects.
The contractors, eight of whom are former military men, wondered how the Marines supposedly could throw the idea of "Semper Fi" out the window and treat fellow Americans so poorly.
"If we were terrorists, they would have extradited us so they could have charged us … once they cleared us, they should have let us go," Pete Ginter, one of the Zapata contractors, told FOXNews.com in a recent interview. "I think it's some personal vendetta they had against us."
[Editor's Note: This is the second in a four-part series on tensions between American contractors working in Iraq and the U.S. military. To read part one of the series, click here.]
Several of the contractors told FOXNews.com the gripe appeared to be financial, stemming from jealousy over the belief that contractors make more money.
"How do you like your contractor money now?" one Marine barked, according to those contractors interviewed.
On June 9, a statement from a Marine spokesman said that while detained "in accordance with standard operation procedures, the Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and, like all security detainees, were treated humanely and respectfully."
The statement said the investigation will look into "all aspects of the incident, as well as the accusations made by the contractors."
Manuel Zapata, president of Zapata Engineering, released a statement soon after the incident saying he was "disturbed" by the allegations but acknowledged the root cause likely was a "misunderstanding by people who are living and working in an intense and stressful situation."
He added: "At the same time, we are also disturbed over reported accounts by our personnel of their treatment while in Marine detention."
The Zapata crew was part of a community of about 120,000 private foreign contractors in Iraq, many working side by side with U.S. military personnel to rebuild a country virtually destroyed by 30 years of neglect and war.
These contractors say they wholeheartedly stand behind President Bush and the U.S. military in the mission to put Iraq on the road toward democracy. But they say a few bad apples aren't helping in those efforts.
"It seems there's a lot more American-on-American [conflict] right now — we call it 'blue on white' — but then again there's a lot of military people who are our closest friends ... so it's a catch-22," said Robert Shaver, another detained Zapata contractor.
Among the contractors are about 20,000 who work for private security companies, some of whom have come under criticism for bad behavior. Witnesses have been quoted telling stories about caravans of intimidating contractors driving fast through Iraqi streets in their SUVs with guns hanging out the window.
Marine Col. John Toolan, who was the military commander of the area that included Fallujah when four private security contractors employed by Blackwater (search) were ambushed and murdered last year, told PBS' "Frontline" that the part of the problem is that the military and contractors have different motivations in a dangerous environment.
"We have a tendency to want to be a little bit more sure about operating in an environment," he said. "Whereas I think some of the contractors are motivated by the financial remuneration and the fact that they probably want to get someplace from point A to point B quickly, their tendency [is] to have a little more risk. So yes, we're at odds. But we can work it out."
Contractors who were once in the armed forces themselves, like Zapata’s Ginter and Matt Raiche, say they went over to Iraq as private citizens to help pay the bills back home.
"I didn't want a dead-end job, I didn't want to live paycheck to paycheck" and live off loans, Ginter told FOXNews.com about why he became a contractor.
A Case of They Said, They Said
The Zapata contractors were detained in Fallujah (search) after the Marines said the contractors sprayed gunfire at them and a group of Iraqi civilians from an armored convoy twice earlier that day. The crew was in Iraq destroying enemy ammunition and explosives.
The contractors say they have proof that they weren't near the position where the Marines claim they were shot at earlier in the day and were actually dropping off ordnances at Camp Victory at the time. Several told FOXNews.com in interviews that sign-in logs can corroborate their story and they said they have receipts from a restaurant and other places they stopped at during the time in question. Plus, the contractors say the Marines' description of the convoy doesn't match the vehicles they were driving.
Ginter and Raiche say the problems began with a flat tire. Their group was changing a tire that blew out after their driver didn't make a turn wide enough to avoid a spike strip when a group of Marines came out and said they wanted to go back to their compound and talk.
The Marines said two rounds of ammunition had hit near where they were stationed. When the Zapata crew asked to see exactly where the rounds hit, they said they couldn't get a straight answer.
The contractors said they fired warning shots into the ground — standard procedure — to prevent a suspicious vehicle from approaching their convoy but that they never aimed at Marines or civilians.
The Marines eventually brought the Zapata contractors to a compound where they were put in 6-by-6 foot concrete cells. When they asked for an attorney, they were told to "shut up," the contractors claim. They were detained there for three days.
"I know for a fact with our situation, the first 36 hours we were detained, there was a lot of tension in the air and a lot of animosity toward us contractors for the money we make," Shaver, who is now back in the United States and living in upstate New York, told FOXNews.com.
Ginter claims that on his way back from being escorted from the bathroom, one of the Marines "physically forces me on the ground, banged my knees on the ground … he kicked my ankle into the cross position," and took off his cross necklace. He also claims the Marine squeezed his testicles "so hard I almost puked" and threatened to unleash a dog on him if he moved.
"Seriously, I thought someone had died, I thought some way they had connected a death to us and I thought … maybe it was a joke, maybe it was training and we didn't know about it," Ginter added.
Raiche said he had his wedding ring and jewelry removed and was also threatened with the dog. He also said he heard one Marine heckle, "how does it feel to make that contractors' money now?" A female Marine was taking pictures of the proceedings, they said. The contractors had blacked-out goggles placed over their heads when they were put on a bus from the original detention site to another one near Fallujah, where Iraqi insurgent suspects are also kept. Ginter said there was a small slit in the goggles that he could see out of.
"I watched as my fellow brothers were thrown to the ground, physically abused … knees, necks, tossed to the ground with the female taking pictures," Ginter said. "It was like going into the Twilight Zone."
Ginter and Raiche said only five or six members of their group were interviewed when investigators from agencies like the FBI showed up. They said they asked for a lawyer, to make a phone call, to contact the Red Cross, Amnesty International and others but were denied such requests. They claim about four Marines, however, were in "total awe — they could not believe what was happening," Ginter said.
Investigating the Investigations
Neither Ginter nor Raiche have been questioned by military investigators since they returned from Iraq. Mark Schopper, the Nevada-based lawyer for some of the contractors in question, said he doesn’t believe anyone in the group has been. The Justice Department also reportedly is looking into the incident.
Gail Rosenberg, a public relations consultant for Zapata, told FOXNews.com on Thursday that the internal investigation from Zapata Engineering is still ongoing. Rosenberg added that "there has been no direct contact" between Zapata and the government on the investigation since the original Zapata statement was released after the incident.
The military has had little to say about the incident since it first happened. Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman, issued a statement saying the Naval Criminal Investigative Service would handle the investigation.
Lapan suggested that the Marines were following procedure in how they handled the contractors. And while Lapan said all charges would be investigated, he added "thus far we have seen nothing to substantiate the claims."
When contacted by FOX News for an update on the investigation last week, Lapan said in an e-mail exchange: "No new developments on the military side. The investigation continues."
So far, even though some of the Zapata contractors say they haven’t been contacted by the NCIS, investigators have spoken to personnel with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
"As far we know, it's still ongoing, we don't have anything new" on the investigation, said Kim Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Ala., which specializes in ordnance and explosives and administered the Zapata contract. "They didn't give us any indication as to when they're going to wrap this up ... I will assume we will be made aware when this investigation is complete."
Coincidentally, Gillespie said Zapata's contract for the explosives work it was doing in Iraq expired Thursday; that contract date was predetermined a year ago, however, and has nothing to do with the alleged incident involving the Marines.
Getting on With Life
After the Fallujah incident, the military gave each of the 16 contractors a letter barring them from further operations in Al Anbar province in western Iraq.
"The contractors clearly, without doubt, experienced physical and psychological abuse and have suffered serious monetary damages," Schopper said. "They lost their jobs, some of them their careers. ... There are serious, serious civil rights violations."
Schopper said that since he went public with information regarding credit card receipts and time logs that show his clients weren't in the area of the first shootings at the time in question, the Marines have changed their story as to who they think shot at them.
He has not yet filed any formal complaints with the military because, "until we get a better feel of what's going on, it doesn't behoove us to show any of our cards."
"We're hoping in fact that this is cleared up without any legal action and hopefully the investigation, if they are in fact doing one, is in fact legitimate and will clear our guys," Schopper added.
Until then, several of the contractors said their lives have been at a virtual standstill.
"There's not much we can do" so far as work is concerned, Ginter said, noting that many government jobs he's qualified for involve high-level security clearances, which involve background checks. "Right now, with this blot on my background, it ruins everything, even if I was to work for the post office … unless I want to work at McDonald's in a job."
Raiche, a former firefighter before heading to Iraq, said he couldn't even get that job back, nor a job in law enforcement, until his name is cleared.
"I have guys in the military right now who were personal friends of mine," Ginter said. "I have no resentment toward the military. I want this off my record."
Check out FOXNews.com on Saturday for the third part of this series, which focuses on the root causes of the tension between some in the U.S. military and contractors in Iraq.