Filipinos launder soldiers’ uniforms, Kenyans truck frozen steaks and inflatable tents, Bosnians repair electrical grids, and Indians provide iced mocha lattes. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops filled with carved camels and Taliban chess sets, beauty salons where soldiers can receive massages and pedicures, and fast-food courts featuring Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon. (AAFES’s motto: “We go where you go.”)
The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases, eat at meagre chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.
The wars’ foreign workers are known, in military parlance, as “third-country nationals,” or T.C.N.s. Many of them recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses. Previously unreleased contractor memos, hundreds of interviews, and government documents I obtained during a yearlong investigation confirm many of these claims and reveal other grounds for concern. Widespread mistreatment even led to a series of food riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers.
Stillman’s piece won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Public Interest and the Sidney Hillman Foundation prize, for excellence in reporting for the public good. (And her recent story “The Throwaways,” about young informants being used to a deadly degree in the nation’s criminal justice system, is up, tonight, for a National Magazine Award. Our Annotation Tuesday! series will carry a line by line on the piece soon, so check back for that.)
When accepting the Hillman prize, Stillman recounted how she found the “invisible army.” Her acceptance speech comes in at the three-minute mark, but here’s the first of it:
“It began when I was at an Indian restaurant in Oxford, England, a few years ago, oddly enough, and I had a waiter—a young man, Tony, came up to me. He was giving me dinner and he heard my American accent and he said, ‘Oh, you’re an American! I used to work on a U.S. military base, feeding soldiers.’ And he whipped out his cellphone and started showing me these pictures of Jessica Simpson on her U.S.O. tour, like in a tank top. He had these funny, interesting stories but then he began to tell me about some of his friends, also from Goa, India, who had been promised great jobs in Dubai and Jordan and instead were taken to a war zone, to a U.S. military base. Other workers had been hit by rockets and lost eyes or limbs and had been sent home to their countries with no insurance. So this was on my radar when I first went to to Iraq in 2008. I thought I was going to have to work hard to dig up these stories and just find these people. And I arrived on the base and lo and behold one of the first things I saw was a Burger King staffed by Indian workers. One of the second things I saw was a Pizza Hut staffed by Bangladeshis, and a Cinnabon. And then a beauty salon where you could actually get $7 manicures and pedicures from a group of Fiji women who ultimately became the subjects of my story. … I learned that they had been promised lavish jobs and a nice hotel in Dubai, and instead were taken to Iraq. I got to know them over a period of years and was there on the day that one was sexually assaulted by her supervisor. When I called the emergency sexual assault hotline on her behalf I found only a phone that rang and rang, and no answer.”
You can find Stillman’s full talk here:
And for more installments of “How’d you find that story?” go here.