For daring to report illegal arms sales, Navy veteran Donald Vance says he was imprisoned by the American military in a security compound outside Baghdad and subjected to harsh interrogation methods.
There were times, huddled on the floor in solitary confinement with that head-banging music blaring dawn to dusk and interrogators yelling the same questions over and over, that Vance began to wish he had just kept his mouth shut.
He had thought he was doing a good and noble thing when he started telling the FBI about the guns and the land mines and the rocket-launchers — all of them being sold for cash, no receipts necessary, he said. He told a federal agent the buyers were Iraqi insurgents, American soldiers, State Department workers, and Iraqi embassy and ministry employees.
The seller, he claimed, was the Iraqi-owned company he worked for, Shield Group Security Co.
"It was a Wal-Mart for guns," he says. "It was all illegal and everyone knew it."
So Vance says he blew the whistle, supplying photos and documents and other intelligence to an FBI agent in his hometown of Chicago because he didn't know whom to trust in Iraq.
For his trouble, he says, he got 97 days in Camp Cropper, an American military prison outside Baghdad that once held Saddam Hussein, and he was classified a security detainee.
Also held was colleague Nathan Ertel, who helped Vance gather evidence documenting the sales, according to a federal lawsuit both have filed in Chicago, alleging they were illegally imprisoned and subjected to physical and mental interrogation tactics "reserved for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."
Corruption has long plagued Iraq reconstruction. Hundreds of projects may never be finished, including repairs to the country's oil pipelines and electricity system. Congress gave more than $30 billion to rebuild Iraq, and at least $8.8 billion of it has disappeared, according to a government reconstruction audit.
Despite this staggering mess, there are no noble outcomes for those who have blown the whistle, according to a review of such cases by The Associated Press.
"If you do it, you will be destroyed," said William Weaver, professor of political science at the University of Texas-El Paso and senior advisor to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.
"Reconstruction is so rife with corruption. Sometimes people ask me, `Should I do this?' And my answer is no. If they're married, they'll lose their family. They will lose their jobs. They will lose everything," Weaver said.
They have been fired or demoted, shunned by colleagues, and denied government support in whistleblower lawsuits filed against contracting firms.
"The only way we can find out what is going on is for someone to come forward and let us know," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, nonprofit group that investigates corruption. "But when they do, the weight of the government comes down on them. The message is, 'Don't blow the whistle or we'll make your life hell.'
"It's heartbreaking," Daley said. "There is an even greater need for whistleblowers now. But they are made into public martyrs. It's a disgrace. Their lives get ruined."
Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse knows this only too well. As the highest-ranking civilian contracting officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she testified before a congressional committee in 2005 that she found widespread fraud in multibillion-dollar rebuilding contracts awarded to former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
Soon after, Greenhouse was demoted. She now sits in a tiny cubicle in a different department with very little to do and no decision-making authority, at the end of an otherwise exemplary 20-year career.
People she has known for years no longer speak to her.
"It's just amazing how we say we want to remove fraud from our government, then we gag people who are just trying to stand up and do the right thing," she says.
In her demotion, her supervisors said she was performing poorly. "They just wanted to get rid of me," she says softly. The Army Corps of Engineers denies her claims.
"You just don't have happy endings," said Weaver. "She was a wonderful example of a federal employee. They just completely creamed her. In the end, no one followed up, no one cared."
But Greenhouse regrets nothing. "I have the courage to say what needs to be said. I paid the price," she says.
Then there is Robert Isakson, who filed a whistleblower suit against contractor Custer Battles in 2004, alleging the company — with which he was briefly associated — bilked the U.S. government out of tens of millions of dollars by filing fake invoices and padding other bills for reconstruction work.
He and his co-plaintiff, William Baldwin, a former employee fired by the firm, doggedly pursued the suit for two years, gathering evidence on their own and flying overseas to obtain more information from witnesses. Eventually, a federal jury agreed with them and awarded a $10 million judgment against the now-defunct firm, which had denied all wrongdoing.
It was the first civil verdict for Iraq reconstruction fraud.
But in 2006, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III overturned the jury award. He said Isakson and Baldwin failed to prove that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-backed occupier of Iraq for 14 months, was part of the U.S. government.
Not a single Iraq whistleblower suit has gone to trial since.
"It's a sad, heartbreaking comment on the system," said Isakson, a former FBI agent who owns an international contracting company based in Alabama. "I tried to help the government, and the government didn't seem to care."