Operation Desert Porn

How a Haverhill war contractor’s wild rendezvous with a porn star at a Stoughton strip club touched off a sordid showdown in the sands of Iraq—and exposed a double standard in military justice.

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Photo by Robert Boyd

It was good old military efficiency that had Brian Sayler back home in Haverhill for a couple of weeks in April 2007. Sayler, then 30, had been working for a year and a half at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, as a small-arms repairman for the military contractor KBR. When he decided to take a similar job with another company, ITT, located just a few hundred yards away, he was told he’d have to return to the United States while the transfer was finalized. A 16,000-mile round-trip journey just to switch jobs may seem extreme, but then, rules and regulations are the backbone of the culture at Anaconda, the largest U.S. installation in Iraq.

While he waited in Haverhill as the process dragged on, Sayler heard about some fun you can’t find in Balad. His favorite porn star, Cassidey, would be performing at Club Alex’s, a strip joint in Stoughton.

After making the hourlong drive, he arrived at the dimly lit club. Inside, there was a main stage and two smaller performance areas off to the sides, and a plexiglass booth used for “shower shows.” Though the place was nearly empty, a burst of excitement rippled through the room when Cassidey finally entered in a tight “naughty nurse” costume that accentuated her prominent curves.

Ascending to the stage from a back door, Cassidey began to prance about to the music and wriggle out of her nurse’s outfit, until she was wearing nothing but her white felt boots. Afterward, she took a seat at a nearby table, surrounded by autographed DVDs she had for sale.

Sayler approached and professed his admiration. “He was so nice,” Cassidey recalls, “really sweet.” They struck up a casual conversation, with Sayler mentioning his imminent return to the Middle East. Cassidey showed her appreciation for his service by providing him with a free lap dance. She also sent him home with an armful of complimentary DVDs to give to his fellow contractors when he made it back to Iraq. “It was the least I could do,” she says. “They’re risking their asses every day. I just wanted to make it a little easier.”

In some ways, it was the night of Sayler’s life. But he doesn’t think of the rendezvous at Club Alex’s that way anymore. Not since it ended up costing him his career.

 

Sayler’s stay in Haverhill wound up lasting longer than he’d expected. By the time he returned to Anaconda it was mid-June. The desert heat beat down on his fair skin and the scalp peeking through his thinning red hair.

Still, he was glad to be back, especially since he’d be doubling his salary with his new job at ITT. Even more than the cash, Sayler was simply happy to be working again; two months on the sidelines was too long. A lifelong member of the NRA, he had a passion for firearms that had led him to make a career out of repairing military small arms—rifles, handguns, grenade launchers, and the like. His excitement about being back in Balad, however, was short-lived. Two weeks after his arrival, and a day after celebrating America’s independence, military police instructed everyone living in Sayler’s building to leave their rooms and wait outside.

General Order Number 1A is little known outside the military. It’s the official reason servicemen and -women are not allowed to drink in Iraq. In addition to booze, GO-1A bans things like gambling, currency exchanges, and proselytizing. And as it happens, GO-1A also bans pornography—which may have something to do with why it hasn’t worked all that well at Camp Anaconda.

The military hasn’t always had such a policy in place. Skin magazines, for instance, were common in Vietnam. But in 1990, General Norman Schwarzkopf issued a precursor to GO-1A that outlawed porn in the first Gulf war. Variations on the order have been around ever since, affecting soldiers serving in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. GO-1A itself was initiated by General Tommy Franks on December 19, 2000, as a way to demonstrate cultural sensitivity to U.S. troops’ Muslim hosts.

But just because there’s a prohibition on pornography doesn’t mean there’s no actual pornography to be found. “In the year and a half I spent there,” Sayler says of his time at Camp Anaconda, “it was a locker room environment. Porn was passed around and traded like baseball cards.” In the barracks, away from the commander’s watchful eye, soldiers and contractors swapped movies among themselves, circulating the titles like some informal X-rated lending library. Whatever the official rule against pornography, in reality it was pretty much don’t ask, don’t tell.

I myself spent two years in the Army in the late 1990s, experiencing firsthand this kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach to porn while serving in Korea. Almost everybody had a stash of magazines or videos, including many of the sergeants. (One in particular used to host screenings in his room. We’d gather for a few beers as a German porn star repeated, “Ya, ya, ya,” with a militaristic cadence.) I went through three or four health and welfare inspections and never lost any of my own adult materials. I even once accidentally left a copy of Playboy on my nightstand during a formal inspection. As my unit’s top sergeant eyed the magazine with disapproval, I asked if he could see where the bunny logo was hidden. All I received was a stern look. But it seems that times have changed. If I were serving today, I’d hide my porn under a false floor in my drawer, as I used to do with my vodka.

There are some gray areas when it comes to GO-1A, like nude photos (with no sex acts depicted) and sex toys. But Sayler knew he was breaking the rules with the DVDs Cassidey had given him—it’s hard to misinterpret Cassidey’s Day Off. Though he had been careful to keep his cache out of sight, making sure to enjoy it only in the privacy of his room, he knew the military was within its rights to enforce regulations.

Then again, the military has to follow the rules, too.

 

There is a procedure for searching the rooms in which soldiers and civilian contractors live. An officer with too much time on his hands or an obsessive love of order typically needs more than just a hunch to rifle through the possessions of the men and women serving under him. It’s recommended that before scouring the barracks for that outlawed movie or half-pint of liquor, the commanding officer file a memorandum for record (MFR) that carefully defines the scope of the search for the military police who will conduct it. And as the living quarters are dissected, the residents are usually allowed to observe the search in order to prevent theft and damage.

Sayler would eventually conclude that the July 5 search at Camp Anaconda was anything but by-the-book. To begin with, he says, the inspection was ordered by Command Sergeant Major Ruben Vela. Typically, Vela’s boss would have initiated the search, with Vela’s responsibility limited to overseeing it. Additionally, Vela appears never to have filed an MFR, leaving the MPs with no official instructions. And finally, Sayler says, the civilian contractors in the affected barracks were not allowed to watch the MPs conduct the search.

As he waited outside during the inspection, Sayler’s first thought was “Oh shit, I hope they don’t find the disks!” They were at the bottom of his backpack, out of view but hardly hidden. When Sayler was allowed to return to his room hours later, he saw that not only were his movies gone, but his laptop computer had disappeared as well.

 

A few weeks later, the Army barred Sayler from the base, and he was subsequently fired by ITT. He claims that when he tried to speak with Vela about the situation, the sergeant major (who declined repeated req
uests to be interviewed for this article) simply pointed his finger at him and exclaimed, “I don’t care. You got caught! You are going home! You are going home!”

Sayler says he spent the next few days under the supervision of armed guards. During that time, Sayler—who’d majored in political science while attending UMass—unsuccessfully appealed the Army’s decision to Camp Anaconda’s commander, then worked his way up the chain of command with a series of phone calls and e-mails. He says he never received a single reply. “I didn’t think it would change the outcome,” he remembers, “but I figured I’d give it a shot.”

His appeals exhausted, Sayler returned to Haverhill. His laptop was given back to him before he left. He says it was determined the computer should never have been confiscated in the first place. It was small consolation.

After slogging through the entire military machine, Sayler decided to send one last e-mail directly to Brigadier General Joseph Anderson, one of the top commanders in Iraq. “I didn’t think I’d hear back from him,” Sayler remembers. Amazingly, though, the general replied within 24 hours: “This is the first I have seen any of this,” Anderson wrote. “Our lawyers will review the packet and make a recommendation to me.” It turned out that none of Sayler’s appeals while still on the base had made their way to Anderson. In essence, the brigadier general’s authority had been disrespected. “The base commander didn’t forward my appeal,” Sayler remembers with a smile. “That pissed [Anderson] off.”

On September 22, two and a half months after the search, Anderson ruled that Sayler would be permitted to return to Iraq. Like most officers who attain his rank, however, Anderson is a savvy politician. He had ruled in Sayler’s favor, but he also knew that the leadership at Anaconda would need to be able to save face. So Sayler’s reinstatement ended up as only a partial vindication. Though he’d be allowed to return to Iraq, he’d have to limit himself to postings in Baghdad—which ruled out Camp Anaconda. Any military travel elsewhere in the country would require approval.

ITT, the company that had offered Sayler the new position in the first place, did have a shop in Baghdad, and even appeared to have an opening there. But Sayler eventually gave up on a return to Iraq. He crashed on couches in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia as he hunted for a new job stateside. In time he returned to Fort Lee, Virginia, where he’d been based before his time in Iraq.

Sayler says the whole episode has left him feeling “tossed aside like a damaged plaything a child no longer wants or needs.” Still, he strikes a somewhat analytical tone when asked about GO-1A. “It seems awfully self-defeating and counterproductive to terminate employees over purely non-work-related conduct,” he says. “Particularly when you have to make a significant investment in those employees just to get them there in the first place.”

Cassidey, the porn star whose movies set the entire affair in motion, was less measured in her reaction: “We send off our boys to fight in a war that’s not even ours, and our boys get fired or discharged for that shit? Wack.”

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