The feelings of helplessness began to creep in right away. The orange jumpsuit and flimsy sandals were too small, the silence eerie. Time passed slowly. Before long, Darrell Cleland knew there were exactly 197 cinder blocks in his tiny cell and 861 openings in the grate above his head.
Cleland, 28, used to escort prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps. Behind bars in May in Fallujah, Iraq, his Marine Corps brothers now his guards, Cleland suddenly identified with his former captives.
"I'm sure those guys at Gitmo were thinking the same thing: How long am I going to be here?" said Cleland, of Salem, Ohio, who had left the Corps in 2002 and joined Zapata Engineering, one of many security contractors working in Iraq.
Cleland and 15 other U.S. contractors were taken into custody by a Marine unit May 28, when military officials alleged that they fired at a Marine checkpoint as their convoy passed through Fallujah -- the first public accusation of that kind. It gave Cleland and his compatriots a rare glimpse of life as detainees, and the humiliation, fear and despair that come with it.
The contractors also became caught in a simmering power struggle between active-duty military personnel and the more than 20,000 well-paid private security operatives who work in Iraq. The contractors operate outside the military chain of command and are not subject to military law, which can lead to resentment from U.S. forces and confusion in the field. Contractors, many of them veterans of years in combat, complain that young U.S. troops lack their experience and judgment under pressure. Yet each group cannot carry out its mission in a hostile Iraq without the other.
The tension may have spiked on that evening a little more than a month ago, when the Marines allege that the 16 contractors, all of whom had military experience, fired wildly on civilians and U.S. observation posts. The contractors contend they were simply returning to their base and would never fire at U.S. troops.
The Marine Corps is investigating. The Zapata contractors were released but blacklisted, banished from the security field in Iraq and branded as criminals -- though none has been charged with a crime.
This account is based on interviews with eight of them. A Marine spokesman provided limited information about the incident and declined to make any of the Marines involved available for interviews pending the results of the investigation.
A Standard Mission
The convoy of four Ford F-350 pickup trucks and one armored Ford Excursion left Zapata's base outside Fallujah on May 28 with a fairly standard mission: Drop off a small amount of explosives at the massive U.S. base named Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport and pick up a few Iraqi civilian employees. Then turn around and come back.
The men in the convoy were from across the United States, New Jersey accents mixing with Tennessee twangs. Fourteen were armed security guards, and eight were ex-Marines.
Their pre-convoy briefing included discussion of the increasing number of attacks on their route, and the frequent use of car bombs to hit such convoys.
But the first leg of their trip was fairly uneventful. Convoy members say they had arrived at Camp Victory and were grabbing lunch by 2 p.m. It was around that time, the Marines would later allege, that a convoy matching the description of the Zapata vehicles began "indiscriminately" firing at civilians. The contractors say that it never happened and that they had no hint of trouble until the drive back.
"Before we left [Camp Victory], I called my wife and said, 'I should be there in about half an hour. I'll call you then,' " said Pete Ginter, an eight-year Marine veteran who had worked as a contractor in Bosnia and Kosovo before moving to Iraq. "That was the last time I talked to her for three-and-a-half days."
Problems began for the contractors when, on the return trip through Fallujah later that afternoon, they spotted a front-end loader approaching from the right side. Fearing an ambush, Cleland, armed with an M-4, leaned out his window and tried to wave off the truck. When he could not get the driver's attention, he fired three shots into the ground.
"I made sure the ricochets didn't even hit his truck," Cleland said. "It was just to let him know that we were there."
The convoy was still on the east side of the Euphrates River, across a bridge from the Marine checkpoint, ECP 6. Cleland said his bullets could not have traversed the bridge and hit the checkpoint.
The Marines tell a different story, saying the observation post "was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack." According to Marine statements released after the incident, Marines also observed the convoy shooting at civilian vehicles in Fallujah. The Marine Corps declined to answer specific questions about the incident e-mailed by The Washington Post, because of its ongoing investigation.
Members of the convoy said they believe they received fire as they crossed the bridge, but did not return it. Once they arrived on the west side of the bridge, the contractors snaked through the barricades leading to the checkpoint, and the fourth vehicle, a Ford pickup, grazed a strip of spikes designed to slow vehicles as they approach. One of the pickup's rear tires exploded.
But there was no alarm from the Marines manning the post, according to the contractors. The convoy members changed their blown tire and spoke with a young Marine who asked if they needed help. Several minutes later, a Marine captain came out, accused the men of shooting at his post, and ordered them to a base in Fallujah.
"He said my guys just fired six rounds at his checkpoint," said Richard Devine, 41, a veteran of the Army's Special Forces and the convoy's commander. "I was shocked to hear about it. I wanted to go and see these six hits. Their story changed, and now it was two rounds that landed near the checkpoint."
Still armed, the contractors were taken to the base, some riding in a Humvee with a hooded and restrained insurgent suspect. There, they were held in a conference room and handed over their official Defense Department identification cards. Their weapons were stashed elsewhere.
Several hours later, 15 to 20 Marines in full battle gear entered the room, and the contractors were ordered to face the wall, their hands over their heads. A military working dog snarled and barked, they said.
"A female MP had a dog, and the dog was close, so close that at one point I felt its breath," said Gary Simpler, 39, a former Special Forces sergeant who spent 20 years in the Army.
In a statement, a Marine spokesman confirmed that a military working dog was present but said that, according to a witness, the dog never assumed an aggressive posture and was not close to the detainees.
One by one, the contractors were escorted into a courtyard where spotlights shone against a dark sky. Several contractors said a group of perhaps 40 Marines was standing in a half-circle, jeering and heckling. The contractors were thrown to their knees, and their hands were tethered with plastic handcuffs. Several Marines were taking photographs while others laughed and taunted them about their salaries.
"Marines don't do this to Marines," said Robert Shaver, 32, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "What ever happened to Semper Fidelis, always faithful?"
Ginter, who is Roman Catholic, wears a wrist rosary and a cross around his neck. He said he had not taken off the rosary in nearly four years, and he had been wearing the cross since his wife gave it to him not long before he left for Iraq. "I believed it kept me safe," he said.
A Marine yanked both off Ginter. When Ginter asked him to be careful with the sacred items, he tossed them to the ground and cursed, Ginter said.
"I said, 'Excuse me, sir. I'm an American. I have the right to my religion,' " Ginter said. The Marine cursed again and grabbed Ginter's testicles, Ginter said. "He squeezed them so hard that physically, I almost got sick," he said.
The contractors were put on a bus, wearing darkened goggles. When the bus stopped, they were sequestered in a dusty holding pen surrounded by concertina wire and ordered to strip down to their underwear. Each was handed an orange jumpsuit, a Koran, a bottle in which to urinate and a prayer mat.
"Oh, I knew exactly where I was then," Devine said. "I was somewhere where they were putting Iraqis and terrorists."
Each contractor was placed in a 6-foot-by-6-foot cell, with a blue mat to spread on the concrete floor. Their repeated pleas to speak with a lawyer, their families, the Red Cross and Amnesty International went unheeded.
Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for Multi-National Force-West, said Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, his unit's commanding general, ordered the security contractors held pending an investigation. Lapan said there is no requirement to advise security detainees of their rights, they do not have the right to speak with a lawyer during their initial detention period and there are no Red Cross representatives in the Fallujah area.
"Their actions were deemed a threat to Marines and others, which is why they were detained," Lapan said. "We are investigating previous incidents of a similar nature."
According to documents obtained by The Post, a June 7 Marine memo indicated that MNF-I "has experienced many problems with Zapata and will not be extending their contract." Another memo, written June 4, indicated that the contractors were accused of "repeatedly firing weapons at civilians and Marines, erratic driving, and possession of illegal weapons" posing a "direct threat to Marine personnel."
Gail Rosenberg, a Zapata spokeswoman, said that there were no previous incidents and that the contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expired after it had run its course.
The contractors said the "illegal" weapons cited in the allegations are six antitank weapons they carried for use against insurgent attacks. They said Army and company officials encouraged them to carry the weapons with a wink and a nod, telling them to keep them concealed.
After the contractors had spent three days in the facility, FBI agents and U.S. marshals came to interview a few of them. According to Shaver, Simpler and Devine, it appeared the FBI was trying to determine whether they were insurgents, even though the investigators had the contractors' military files in front of them. Once the contractors were cleared, they were passed on to a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent. Shortly thereafter, they were released. The Marines issued "debarment letters" banning the contractors from all coalition bases in western Iraq.
Cleland, who according to the contractors was the only one to fire a shot that afternoon, was never questioned about the incident.
Now the contractors say they want to clear their names. News of the incident spread quickly in Iraq, and allegations that they shot at U.S. troops have destroyed their reputations.
Rick Blanchard, 42, an ex-Marine, said he had two security jobs lined up in Iraq but does not know if he will ever be allowed back in the country. "They've ruined my career," he said.
Lapan said a decision on whether to file criminal charges will be made when the investigation is completed.