COVINGTON, Ohio - After two months, Robert Hill is home for good.
But he says it is not because he wants to be.
Hill, a 50-year-old Covington resident, this summersigned up in the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs stores for military and certain other government personnel. . It was something that appealed to Hill, an Air Force veteran, who quit his job with the Internal Revenue Service and left behind his wife and three children to take the job, which promised $90,000 for a year of work.
Hill trained and was sent to Camp Anaconda in Iraq. He spent two months working in 110-degree heat, building and then helping to run a supply store where soldiers could buy food and other items.
But Hill became concerned about what he called the "mistreatment" of contract workers from other countries, referred to as third-country nationals.
Officials say investigations were made and no mistreatment occurred.
But because of his concern, Hill chose to walk away from his one-year commitment, saying he felt that speaking out made him a target for repercussions from his superiors.
"I'm the type of person that if I see something that I think is wrong, I will speak up. That's what I did."
Hill said the living conditions for the contract workers brought in from other countries were not suitable.
"Some slept on the floor," he said. "And their housing had little to no air conditioning, which made for a dangerous situation."
Hill said the workers were underpaid - "around $4 an hour" - and some worked seven days a week, lifting heavy boxes.
"It's substandard, that's how I would categorize their situation," Hill said.
In his first two weeks in Iraq, Hill oversaw a group of the workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, and he worked with other contract workers throughout his stay. He said he was impressed with their work.
"These were good, polite, hardworking people," he said. "They don't deserve to be treated that way."
But Hill said that when he first spoke out about the workers' treatment - in an article published by The Enquirer - he was told by Maj. Gen. Bill Essex that the problem would be handled.
Hill saw no progress made, and when two co-workers who Hill says also spoke out were transferred from the base, Hill believed he would be the next to go.
"I didn't need to be thinking about those kinds of things, not focusing on my job," Hill said. "You have to be focused when you're working in that place."
You don't want to be thinking about other things and then see a mortar round fly over your head. It's just not safe."
Officials with the Army & Air Force Exchange Service originally said they could not answer questions about third-country nationals, saying that the workers are chosen and paid by four contracting groups: Al Hasana Training Co., FPS International Co., Daoud and Partners and Q West Base Co.
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service could not provide contact information for those companies, and only one - FPS International Co. - was found on the Internet.
But no phone number was listed for that group.
"All personnel who have a working relationship with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service are to be treated with dignity and respect," said spokeswoman Jennifer Johnsen. "Third-country nationals and local nationals deserve the same level of consideration, fair treatment and respect that direct AAFES associates receive. All forms of verbal, non-verbal and physical mistreatment of a third-country national, local national, or U.S. associate are prohibited and punishable by administrative action and potential criminal liability."
Johnsen also said that the transfers Hill cited were "consistent with operational needs - nothing else."
Jack Morris, senior vice president of AAFES Europe, which overseas management of all the workers in the war zone, said third-country nationals get help from coordinators.
"I've been deployed myself and I am very familiar with how these people are treated," Morris said in a Kingdom. "Things just aren't the way (Hill) says they are," Morris said. "We couldn't do what we do without the third-country nationals." ... Morris said that anytime there is a complaint about treatment of third-country nationals, or any employee, the situation is investigated and "checked out immediately." He said that the third-country nationals where Hill worked were investigated after superiors learned of Hill's concerns. But in the case of those employees, Morris said, "there was no hard evidence" in the case to prove any mistreatment.
"And in the case of employees being transferred, those employees were transferred because there was an immediate need for workers in Baghdad," Morris said. "I am sorry Mr. Hill feels the way he does. He did a great job while he was there - and I wish he could've stayed. There was no pressure from us on him to leave."
Hill has filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, claiming he faced discrimination for objecting to discriminatory practices.
"I'm not worried," Hill said. "God will make everything right."
"I loved helping soldiers," Hill said. "But some things weren't right."
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