Ben Johnston recoiled in horror when he heard one of his fellow helicopter mechanics at a U.S. Army base near Tuzla, Bosnia, brag one day in early 2000: "My girl's not a day over 12."
The man who uttered the statement -- a man in his 60s, by Johnston's estimate -- was not talking fondly about his granddaughter or daughter or another relative. He was bragging about the preteen he had purchased from a local brothel. Johnston, who'd gone to work as a civilian contractor mechanic for DynCorp Inc. after a six-year stint in the Army, had worked on helicopters for years, and he'd heard a lot of hangar talk. But never anything like this.
More and more often in those months, the talk among his co-workers had turned to boasts about owning prostitutes -- how young they were, how good they were in bed, how much they cost. And it wasn't just boasting: Johnston often saw co-workers out on the streets of Dubrave, the closest town to the base, with the young female consorts that inspired their braggadocio. They'd bring them to company functions, and on one occasion, Johnston says, over to his house for dinner. Occasionally he'd see the young girls riding bikes and playing with other children, with their "owners" standing by, watching.
But the bragging about a 12-year-old sex slave pushed Johnston over the edge. "I had to do something," he says. "There were kids involved."
So Johnston says he complained to managers at DynCorp, the Reston, Va.-based company that had hired him to be a mechanic at the U.S. Army's Camp Comanche in Bosnia, and to the Army Criminal Investigation Command (known by the acronym CID). In the end, two DynCorp employees would be fired for the activities Johnston complained about -- including site supervisor John Hirtz -- but not before Johnston himself lost his job. And nobody would face criminal charges of any kind for their involvement with the young prostitutes.
Now Johnston is suing DynCorp in a Tarrant County, Texas, courtroom, in a case that is set to go to trial in mid-July. He is claiming he was fired for blowing the whistle on his co-workers' role in the sex trade, and is seeking unspecified monetary damages. And he is not alone. A second wrongful termination suit filed in the U.K. by a former DynCorp employee contracted to the United Nations to be part of the U.N.'s International Police Task Force in Bosnia charges that she was sacked for implicating DynCorp employees who participated in forced prostitution in the Balkans. In that case, which will likely reach a conclusion in the next several weeks, former officer Kathryn Bolkovac contends that other task-force officers frequented brothels staffed by women forced into prostitution.
The scope of the problem is stunning, says Martina Vandenberg, a women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, and in a 1999 tour of Bosnia, she saw little effort to stop it. "I found that Bosnia was absolutely littered with brothels and those brothels were full of trafficked women," she said. "We're talking about women sold as chattel for $600 to $700, with all the rights of ownership attaching."
DynCorp declined to comment on the suits, citing the pending legal action. But after a February 2000 story by Insight Magazine, a sister publication of the Washington Times, the company mounted a vigorous defense on its Web site, insisting that it cooperated with the government's investigation and fired employees who were involved.
"The behavior described in the (Insight) article is intolerable and illegal and is something the company does not tolerate," the posting says. "The Company has always been diligent in deterring, detecting, and disciplining any and all employee behavior that falls outside the Company's stated policies, or could be perceived as violating the law."
Further, DynCorp asserted that Johnston was not terminated for participating in an Army investigation, as the company did not even know that Johnston had gone to CID at the time of his firing. The posting did not directly address the Bolkovac case.
But the lawsuits are raising larger questions about the role and the accountability of the growing number of private military contractors working overseas. These firms -- often referred to as private military companies or private military firms -- provide an assortment of services to the armed forces and the U.S. government as well as foreign governments and international organizations, and it's a rapidly growing business. In addition to mechanic units such as the one Johnston joined, DynCorp provides communications and weapons specialists to U.S. forces, crop eradication pilots to the State Department for use in South America, and police officers to the U.N.
DynCorp has a lot of company in this booming field. Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton -- of which Vice President Dick Cheney is a former CEO -- is another major player. The company has run or currently runs U.S. military bases in such far-flung locations as Georgia, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans. Some companies actually train foreign forces. The firm MPRI, which boasted to the Los Angeles Times that it has "more generals per square foot than the Pentagon," is in line for the contract to train the new Afghan army. As America continues its broad war against terror, these and other similar companies will be deployed to the Philippines, Afghanistan and anywhere else American, U.N. or NATO troops are sent.
In just 10 years, the private military industry has grown from a handful of companies to hundreds, with its income rising from millions of dollars a year to an estimated $100 billion a year, says Peter W. Singer, an Olin fellow with the Brookings Institution who has spent the last seven years studying the field.
But with their growing influence come new questions about their role. Are they monitored well enough, and by whom? In countries without a solid civic, military or police infrastructure, whether Bosnia or Afghanistan, who can police them? Are they above the law, or acting as the law themselves? Critics contend that these companies often operate without oversight in distant and developing countries and aren't subject to the scrutiny conventional military operations receive. Problems, they say, are inevitable.
Attempts by Salon to have such concerns addressed by the U.S. government highlight the lack of accountability. The Department of Defense refused to answer questions about contractor accountability, referring them instead to the specific branch of service that holds a given contract. The Army was unable to find someone knowledgeable on the topic to be interviewed. The State Department failed to return phone calls on the matter.
The Air Force did respond to questions, but only to say that the contractors themselves are responsible for their employees. Lt. Col. David Talley of Air Force public affairs said that when it comes to contractors, the Air Force is concerned with whether the contract is carried out, not with the behavior of individual employees.
Ben Johnston's story of the way DynCorp officials and staff took advantage of the lawlessness of postwar Bosnia is a cautionary tale about the lack of accountability enjoyed by these private companies working on behalf of the U.S. military.
A former West Texas high school athlete, Johnston had joined the Army with a sense of duty instilled by his upbringing -- his father served in the Navy -- and with an overload of television coverage of the Gulf War. Today, at 31, he's almost five years out of the military, but he still proudly jingles the dog tags he wears all the time and talks about how everyone should serve while they're young.
Johnston says he performed well in the Army, due in part to his extensive previous experience working on aircraft. His father owned a small airstrip in Shallowater, Texas, and Johnston talks about sneaking out in his father's plane the way most people recollect sneaking out in their parents' car. After college he attended a small Christian university for a year before enrolling in Rice Aviation, an aircraft maintenance trade school where Johnston earned his Airframe and Powerplant certificate.
He enlisted in the Army, and for the next six years, Johnston worked on helicopters -- first on Black Hawks and Hueys, later on Apaches. He finished his term with the 2/6 Cavalry in Illesheim, Germany. That's where he first heard of DynCorp, a company largely owned by employees that today boasts an income of almost $2 billion a year, according to its Web site. Over 95 percent of this income is derived from government contracts, according to DynCorp spokeswoman Anne Crecraft, and of that, approximately 40 percent comes from government-contracted IT and computer systems work. The other 60 percent, she says, comes from logistics support, aviation maintenance and similar services.
Johnston worked near such a maintenance team when he was stationed at Stork Barracks in Illesheim. As an enlisted mechanic, Johnston heard stories about the large amounts of money being made by DynCorp's people for doing essentially the same job he was doing. When DynCorp employees working at the base virtually guaranteed him a job, Johnston says he was intrigued. In late 1998, as he was finishing his hitch in the Army, he landed a job working on aircraft at Camp Comanche in Dubrave, Bosnia, the same base he'd been stationed at while briefly deployed with the Army's 2/6 Cav. Within days of being discharged from the Army, Johnston was on a flight to Bosnia, now making what he claims amounted to a six-figure income as a DynCorp employee.
When he took the job, he expected it to be similar to his time in the Army, and at first, much of it was. In the Army, Johnston spent his days working on Black Hawk or Apache helicopters. In Bosnia it was the same. He was even issued a Kevlar vest and helmet when he arrived, just as if he were part of a regular Army unit. He earned hazard pay and ate at the base mess hall.
But by Johnston's description, the early days were lonely and the work environment far different from the one he'd known in military life.
His wife didn't come with him and his marriage dissolved. His contracting crew was older then his crews in the Army had been -- and far less motivated, Johnston says. A task such as changing tires on a Black Hawk should've taken 45 minutes, but at Camp Comanche, it took all day. The camaraderie Johnston had enjoyed while he was in the Army was all but absent. And he was revolted by the stories he was hearing about local prostitution, especially the use of young girls as sex slaves.
One day, while waiting for the DynCorp van to pick him up for work, he met a young Bosnian woman. Denisa, who is now 23, had spent her early teens in what she calls "life in the basement," hiding from the shelling in the surrounding hills, often going without electricity, and sometimes without food and water. After that initial meeting, Denisa's brother Sam invited Johnston to the family's house for coffee. He struck up a friendship with Sam, and through it got to know Denisa's family. Eventually Denisa and Johnston started a courtship that adhered to the conservative customs of local Muslims, and in September 1999, they married.
Life got better for a while. His home life was better, and he had made some friends at work. But soon Johnston began to realize that the unsubtle brand of Balkan prostitution he saw all around him was going to force him to do something -- and the consequences couldn't help but unsettle the peaceful life he was trying to build for himself in Bosnia.
Many prostitutes in the Balkans are not natives of the region, but are imported from poor Eastern European countries such Russia, Moldova and Romania, according to Ann Jordan, a lawyer with International Human Rights Law Group who works on human trafficking. Some come willingly, Jordan says, knowing that the region is home to a population of highly paid, unaccompanied men from military forces, international aid organizations, the United Nations and private military firms. These women hope to carve out a better life for themselves, maybe send some cash home to their families. Others are tricked by human traffickers who tell them they are going to Italy or another Western European country where they will work at conventional jobs. Many of these women are in their teens, or younger.
However the girls get there, they usually end up trapped. They become indebted to pimps and brothel owners, ostensibly for the cost of importing them. These men take the women's passports and force them to repay the debts through prostitution.
"In the beginning they hold out hope that the situation will improve and they'll be able to go free," Jordan says. "But it's not true."
And sometimes, according to Jordan, these girls are sold outright to a customer -- usually a member of the international contingent participating in some way in rebuilding the region.
According to deposition testimony from DynCorp employees and DynCorp e-mails made public by Johnston's lawsuit, Bosnian police started an investigation in the summer of 1999 after local news media reported that five DynCorp employees had purchased the women's passports from local Serbian mafia elements. Johnston was still relatively new at the job, and says at the time he knew nothing of that investigation. A Bosnian government representative brought the allegations to the attention of the Task Force Eagle commander (Camp Comanche is one of the bases that make up the larger Task Force Eagle). The men were accused in the Bosnian press of "harboring illegal immigrants and participating in organized crime activities to buy ownership (passports) of these aliens," according to an e-mail from Martin Ayers, then DynCorp's manager of European operations, to DynCorp vice president Chris DiGesualdo.
According to e-mails, on Aug. 10, the Army informed DynCorp of the men's names and the accusations against them, and requested they be removed from Bosnia within 48 hours. By Aug. 12, DynCorp had flown the men to a DynCorp office in Germany to be interviewed. Within a few days of arriving in Germany, the men were fired. This apparently satisfied the Army. Thanks to DynCorp's swift action, Ayers' e-mail says, "We were able to turn this into a marketing success."
But an Aug. 11 e-mail from DynCorp manager Joe Becker to Ayers indicates that even as these events unfolded, DynCorp already had an inkling that the problems were more widespread than had been addressed.
"[I]t appears that as many as three other employees are participating in similar activities that have not drawn the police attention and reporting we have seen with these first five," Becker's e-mail says. His solution: "Recommend that any action include counselling of our people to correct further embarrassment of this nature."
Joseph Becker conducted interviews with the four employees when they arrived in Germany, according to his deposition testimony in the Johnston case (the fifth accused employee had already been fired and sent home for failing to show up to work). The impression Becker got from these interviews, he says, was not one of slave and master, but rather one of honorable men who had fallen in love with local prostitutes and tried to buy their freedom. According to Becker, the men had "saved the women."
"I had an opportunity to interview those people and without exception all of them indicated that they would [buy the women] again," Becker says. "They were in tears."
He went on to say in his testimony that he did some research into the idea of men buying sex slaves in order to free them and then marry them, and found it to be common. He asserts there were grounds for dismissal because the men broke the local law, but he says that he found the men's intentions admirable and indicates that he would consider hiring them again if they possessed the right skills for a position he had open.
Ann Jordan of the International Human Rights Law Group says she has heard of men buying women to free them but is uncertain how often they actually do free them. In any event, she says, the transactions are troubling.
"Why not go to the police and help the women get out who want to get out?" Jordan asks. Otherwise, "the person who sold her is still free." And now the good-hearted customer has given money to the slave owner to go buy another girl.
In some cases, Jordan says, the claim of "buying their freedom" is merely an excuse.
"They don't free them to free them," she says. "They free them to keep for themselves."
As the Bosnian investigation was underway in 1999, Johnston says that while he knew that several employees were fired (according to deposition testimony, one of them was his supervisor at the time), he only heard rumors about the circumstances. He had seen prostitution in Germany, but says he didn't yet realize the slavery implications of the profession as practiced in the Balkans.
One of the first things that drove the point home, according to Johnston, was when co-workers began openly talking about it, bragging, even telling him point-blank that they owned women. And that was weeks, even months after DynCorp had fired the first five employees.
In his deposition, Johnston names at least seven co-workers who, he says, openly admitted buying women. An eighth man, according to Johnston, bragged about owning half interest in a brothel and called himself "pimp daddy."
Recalling such stories in an interview, Johnston shifts from anger to disgust to paranoia. He is constantly worried both about DynCorp retaliating against him in some way, and about Serbian mafia members coming to kill him. He is angry about being fired, but gets even more upset when he recalls how blatant the problem became by early 2000.
By that point, Johnston says, such ownership was rampant among employees of DynCorp in Dubrave. He says the men walked around town with the women and openly displayed their affection. He describes the women as universally young -- teenagers, even preteens -- and foreign.
One particularly disturbing pattern Johnston describes in his deposition underscores the youth of the women involved:
Johnston: "You could see them [the prostitutes] right out the window [of my house]."
DynCorp attorney J. Gregory Marks: "What were they doing?"
Johnston: "Playing with other children. A lot of them are so young, they would play with other kids, and you could see them riding bikes and stuff like that."
Marks: "You would see the women?"
Johnston: "Right, but the man would be out there, too."
Marks: "And what would he be doing?"
Johnston: "Just watching, smoking a cigarette."
At work, Johnston says, the prostitution talk had spiraled out of control. Co-workers, he says, would talk about "how good it was to have a sex slave at home," and discuss the possibility of selling "them back for half price" when they grew tired of them.
Johnston says that one employee he invited over for dinner brought his sex slave with him. He says the man complained about the woman's wanting to return to her home country and how the man was afraid to let her, because he feared she wouldn't come back.
Johnston's wife Denisa, a native of Dubrave, says that even though she was naive about such activities, in late 1999 and early 2000 she started to become aware of what DynCorp men where doing in their off time.
"I had never seen a prostitute in my life," she says, "only in the movies."
That limited exposure was enough to let her know that the foreign women hanging on the arms of DynCorp employees, identifiable by the patches on their uniforms, were prostitutes.
"I'll never forget this one time," Denisa said in a recent telephone interview. "There was one guy who weighs 300 pounds who wore this greasy leather jacket. He was so gross. And he was with a girl about 14 or 15. He was hugging her and she would push him away. And this was a good-looking girl. You could just tell that there was no way she would be with him [by choice]."
Such public displays didn't sit well with the conservative Muslim community in Dubrave.
"A lot of people didn't like it," Denisa Johnston says. "My uncle and aunt had little kids that were just like, 'Whoa, what's going on here?' You have to picture my town; when I started dating Ben, my brother would always go with us."
She met a few of these girls at DynCorp-related functions and co-worker get-togethers and tried to talk with them. "They didn't like to talk a lot," she says. "They seemed really sad."
Ben Johnston wasn't the only DynCorp employee disturbed by what he was seeing. His best friend, Tom Oliver, eventually would go with him to the CID when Johnston decided he had to take action outside of the DynCorp chain of command to stop men from buying women. Oliver is personally familiar with the workings of forced prostitution in Bosnia -- he admits he paid a local brothel owner for his current wife, who was in her late teens at the time. In his testimony, Oliver describes the transaction as "buying her freedom." The woman, Mihaela, gave birth to Oliver's son shortly before he left Bosnia, and they are now married and living in Alabama.
Oliver's testimony supports Johnston's claim that the purchasing of prostitutes was common among DynCorp personnel in Bosnia -- and not necessarily to free them.
In one of the stories he tells in his deposition, Oliver says he was invited into the house of some co-workers to see what he describes as two "rental" live-in women in their late teens. The women, Oliver says, were clearly prostitutes.
"They invited me into the house [and] the women were just, you know, sitting around the house in their underwear, thongs, T-shirts, maybe a bra, that was it," he testified. "I don't think that's the way most people entertain company."
Perhaps the most shocking tale in Oliver's deposition is the story of a DynCorp employee named Steve who bought a 16-year-old Romanian girl. He says that at some point Steve found himself both in financial trouble and angry with the girl so he sold her back to the bar he had bought her from. Then another DynCorp employee expressed interest in buying her.
Oliver says he gave his 30-day notice to DynCorp in late April 2000. That, he says, is when he and Johnston hatched a plan to report the forced prostitution to the Army Criminal Investigative Command.
Johnston had already complained to DynCorp leadership by that time, but to no avail. Johnston believes the reason for the inaction was the fact that his supervisors, including John Hirtz, were among the DynCorp employees involved in Dubrave's sex industry.
Hirtz could not be located for comment on this story.
Johnston and Oliver are not clear on the exact date they first went to CID. Johnston says it was either February or March of 2000. Oliver sets the time in March or April, and a CID report on the incident lists an unnamed source coming to it on the first of May. Whichever date is correct, the resulting CID investigation into these new allegations of forced prostitution would continue until June 21, and include a raid of DynCorp's hangar at Camp Comanche.
In mid-May, after the start of the investigation, Johnston was informed that he was being laid off. DynCorp managers contend Camp Comanche was overstaffed. In his deposition, Joseph Becker says that Johnston was picked over the other workers for several reasons. Johnston was inexperienced with Black Hawks, Becker said, and he was living with a Bosnian woman (his wife). Plus, the supervisor said, Johnston was showing interest in starting a business in Dubrave, which would violate a DynCorp agreement with the Army that prohibits employees from making money in the local economy. Johnston asserts that he had plenty of Black Hawk experience and denies that he was trying to make money in the local economy.
Becker and another manager at the time, Jonathan Lyons, both contend in their depositions that Johnston learned of his impending layoff and made his complaint to CID to get back at the company. It's clear from the deposition testimony and the CID report that Johnston went to CID before he was formally notified of his layoff, but Becker and Lyons assert that he was able to deduce that it was coming. They also contend that Johnston himself was engaged in illegal activity in Bosnia.
A handful of DynCorp employees still working at Camp Comanche also charge Johnston with illegal and immoral behavior. In their depositions, several claim Johnston went to prostitutes. At least two claim that Johnston offered to sell them a gun (though neither is reported as making such a claim in the CID's 2000 report on the incident), and several indicated that Johnston had threatened to "get even" with DynCorp.
Johnston vehemently denies that he was involved in any illegal activity, that he visited prostitutes, that he sold guns or that he went to CID as revenge for getting laid off. He calls the allegations ludicrous, and said he would take a lie detector test to prove his innocence. The charges were made in retaliation, he says, by men and a company angry that he "busted up DynCorp's party." He contends, rather, that he was laid off because site manager John Hirtz worried about his vocal complaints and had gotten wind that he had gone to CID.
Tom Oliver supported Johnston's theory in his deposition, stating that he had told other DynCorp employees that he and Johnston had gone to CID, only to learn later that the employees were involved in similar activities and were Hirtz's friends.
Meanwhile, the Army CID's investigation into Johnston's complaints was proceeding, but it was beginning to look like whatever it found, the CID would be unable to prosecute any of the men involved.
CID would not make agents available to be interviewed for this article, but a report on the incident provided to Johnston's lawyers and human rights workers shows the problems CID encountered.
According to the report, Special Agent William Russ coordinated his investigation with the U.S. Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russ spoke with a Lt. Col. Cole and a Maj. Nettles at the judge advocate's office, and was informed that neither Bosnian law nor U.S. law applied to the men. The staff judge advocate told CID that all it could do was bar individuals from military bases and ask DynCorp to fire them.
In early May 2000, Tom Oliver left Dubrave with his family, and throughout the month Johnston continued to meet with CID, telling agents what he had seen and heard and taking them around town to point out the houses of people who he suspected had bought women.
On June 2, dozens of military police surrounded the DynCorp hangar at Camp Comanche, rounded up the scores of DynCorp employees working there and began interrogating them about their knowledge of illegal activities at the base. A few were selected, presumably on Johnston's recommendations, to give sworn statements and have their homes and vehicles searched. Johnston was placed in protective custody.
The majority of CID's searches and interviews didn't turn up much, but DynCorp employee Kevin Werner delivered a bombshell: He admitted he bought a prostitute and an illegal gun and implicated other DynCorp employees, including Hirtz, in the town's sex trade.
Werner could not be located for comment and has not given a deposition in Johnston's lawsuit. But in his sworn statement, Werner told investigators about prostitution run by a Serbian mafia character known as the Belly.
"He is the operator of a nightclub by the name of Harley's. Harley's is a nightclub that offers prostitution. Women are sold hourly, nightly or permanently," Werner told investigators. Werner admitted that he had purchased a Moldavian prostitute and the Uzi, apparently in a package deal. He claimed he had paid for the woman in order to free her, and told investigators that she could leave any time she wanted.
The investigative summary of the raid, dated June 21, 2000, says that CID agents established probable cause to believe Werner committed the offenses of illicit possession of a weapon and procuring and pandering. The summary also said Hirtz committed the offense of procuring and pandering when he solicited sexual intercourse from two female prostitutes who worked at Harley's.
The case was then closed. Despite the fact that three employees of DynCorp were found to be living with young Eastern European women -- Werner admitted that he had purchased his from a local bar -- there is no evidence in the CID report that investigators interviewed the women or tried to determine if they were being held against their will. The final summary in the CID report reads: "This investigation was terminated in that it was determined that the offense was committed by a civilian who is no longer subject to the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice], there are no violations of federal criminal statutes with which the person can be charged, and no other Army interest exists."
But CID investigators discovered on June 2, the day of the raid, that the staff judge advocate had been wrong. In fact, the Bosnian police could prosecute crimes committed by American DynCorp employees as long as the crimes were committed outside of their official duties in Bosnia. They turned the case over to the Zivinice, Bosnia, police.
But the Bosnian police would not get a chance to prosecute anyone. According to DynCorp e-mails, John Hirtz was transferred to Germany within days of the raid. DynCorp supervisor Lyons says in his deposition that Hirtz was later fired, and asserts that the firing was justified because the CID had "produced some evidence that [there] was clear violations of moral behavior, as well as some illegal activities." Kevin Werner was escorted to the airport by the CID and sent out of the country. He was also subsequently fired by DynCorp. Neither was prosecuted. The Bosnian police did not pursue the matter -- whether due to a lack of resources, continuing confusion over jurisdictional issues or simply a lack of will is unclear.
Ben and Denisa Johnston were held in protective custody for several days. At some point Johnston's status with DynCorp was changed from laid off to fired. On his letter of discharge, DynCorp lists the reason for termination as "employee brought discredit to [DynCorp] and to the US Army." Johnston was forced to pay for his own relocation costs and is not eligible to be rehired. But there's an apparent contradiction that could prove important to Johnston's case: Despite the official claim on DynCorp's Web site that the company had no knowledge that Johnston had gone to CID when he was fired, Lyons says in his deposition that the way Johnston brought discredit to DynCorp and the U.S. Army was by bringing unsubstantiated charges against his fellow employees.
Two of the employees Johnston disclosed to investigators were fired. But many of the men who allegedly owned young women, including the man Johnston says bragged about owning a 12-year-old girl, were never implicated by the CID and never fired from DynCorp.
Johnston's lawsuit will likely go to a jury next month. His lawyers will contend that DynCorp engaged in a pattern of illegal activity and fired him for blowing the whistle. DynCorp's lawyers will likely paint a picture of Johnston as an embittered employee who charged his co-workers with crimes to retaliate for the layoff. No one will deny that at least some DynCorp employees purchased women in Bosnia. And whichever way the case goes, none of those employees who purchased women will likely ever face criminal charges.
Coming Thursday, Part 2: How they got away with it.