For soldiers, England’s role at Abu Ghraib is best viewed from a distance
(c) 2004, The Washington Post
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Heads turn. Soldiers stare. It’s hard not to gawk.
She seems too small, even pixie-like, to be as sadistically abusive as she’s portrayed. It’s hard to imagine her holding a leash around a naked prisoner’s neck.
Even her name – Lynndie R. England – sounds too innocently chirpy to belong to the woman posed in the porn shots taken during her Iraqi deployment. There’s something so girlish about her, though she’s 21, and something boyish, too, with that black beret atop her close-cropped hair and that slight swagger.
She is in camouflage green like any other soldier. But her standard battle dress uniform is cut maternity-style to accommodate a bulging stomach, eight months pregnant.
It’s the lunch break of her court hearing here at Fort Bragg, and England, her mother and her lawyers have come to the food court of a base shopping mall here to find a place to eat.
Soldiers nudge one another. They gesture in England’s direction. She’s awaiting the arrival of her first-born. And she’s awaiting the next phase of a court-martial in which she faces up to 37 years in prison if convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners and doing other “indecent” things.
It is a quiet spectacle. That is what England inspires. People look at her to find some meaning, some answers in the face that, in fairness or not, quickly became the improbable face of the ugly prison abuse scandal. Many other faces have emerged, but England’s remains iconic – and tragically so, considering that a child is coming into her embattled world.
To look at her is to see a Rorschach test for the Iraq war – different symbolism, different meaning, depending on who’s looking. Detractors see proof that the war is misguided. Supporters see England as just a bad apple.
As the scandal continues to expand, with two explosive official reports last month that implicate dozens of others up and down the military chain of command, the meaning of Lynndie England shifts and changes, too.
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Off base at lunchtime, bathed in the atrium sunshine of a Fayetteville shopping mall, three young female soldiers chow down. Lynndie England would fit right in with them. They’re around her age, and two are about to deploy to Iraq.
The third, Spec. Kendale Carney, 24, of Hamlet, N.C., has done her tour of duty already. She shows off her shoulder patch from the 3rd Infantry Division. She was part of its troop support battalion on the drive to Baghdad last year.
On base, the media isn’t allowed to interview soldiers. Even off base, some soldiers say things like “we’ve been told not to say anything to the press” when asked their views of the England case.
But Carney and Pfc. Brenda Quinn, 20, of Barnegat, N.J., and Pfc. Naomi Torres, 19, of Long Branch, N.J., feel no such inhibition. “What they did affected the whole world,” Carney says.
But, they also say, none of it happened in isolation. Couldn’t have. England and her co-accused couldn’t have stripped prisoners, forced them to masturbate, piled them in naked pyramids and stomped them, in secret.
“Chain of command,” says Carney. “That can’t be going on without them knowing about it.”
These soldiers know England only from what they’ve seen in the news or heard on base. None has met her; none has even seen her on base. That’s not odd, considering Bragg is like a small city, with roughly 45,000 soldiers based there.
England has been assigned to desk duty at Bragg since January while her court-martial is decided. But she is from the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Western Maryland, not far from her West Virginia home.
“If I were to ever receive orders that you need to do this bad thing, if I thought it was something morally wrong, like what she did, I wouldn’t do it,” says Pfc. Chris Hemphill, 19, of Granite City, Ill. He was taking lunch at the Cross Creek Mall, too. Part of the 327th Signal Battalion, he’s shipping out to Iraq soon. “The order had to have come from higher up because, like, a lower enlisted person isn’t going to think, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ “
Yet, things can get murky in the chaos of a war zone. Carney’s been there. She has seen comrades die. She has seen Iraqi detainees spit on U.S. troops. She has felt the anger and rage that surges under fire. She knows the struggle to do the right thing.
“When you got an American uniform on, you’re not supposed to have those feelings,” she says. “But when your brother gets killed?” She just shakes her head.
Carney’s view of England and the abuse case doesn’t have anything to do with gender. “A soldier’s a soldier,” says Carney.
But who can ignore the pregnancy? England had a romantic relationship with another soldier, Cpl. Charles Graner. He is the father, her attorneys have said.
Getting pregnant in combat theater is forbidden; soldiers are not deployed to such areas if they are pregnant.
“That right there makes women look bad,” Carney says of the pregnancy. “Male soldiers do it, too, it’s just that they don’t get caught ’cause they don’t get pregnant.”
It’s bad enough that women already labor against stereotypes.
“If you’re a female in the military, they look at everything you do,” Torres says. “You have to walk on eggshells.”
Says Carney: “They think we’re weaker and don’t have discipline.”
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Lynndie England rubs her large tummy. Otherwise, she sits stoically as testimony depicts her as an out-of-control soldier.
It is late August, and the Article 32 hearing is winding down. In the civilian world, it would be called a grand jury hearing, except only one person sits in judgment, not a full panel. It’s up to Col. Denise Arn, a U.S. Army Reserve judge investigating the England case, to recommend the charges the military will pursue during a court-martial.
Six others from the Abu Ghraib prison also have been charged. Graner, England’s boyfriend, is among them, along with Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, Sgt. Javal Davis, Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Spc. Sabrina Harman and Spc. Jeremy Sivits.
On this day, Sivits is testifying. He is talking – via telephone, for he is jailed down at Camp Lejeune, N.C., having pleaded guilty – about what happened on Nov. 8, 2003. Coincidentally, it was England’s 21st birthday.
This is what Sivits says:
He was on motor pool detail that evening, when Frederick asked him to help escort a prisoner through Abu Ghraib. The detainee had a bag over his head and flexicuffs on his wrists, as was routine. Sivits walked the prisoner to the main detention area, called the hard site. He then “nudged” the prisoner onto a pile of other prisoners on the floor. That’s what everybody else was doing. So he did it, too. It was around 7 p.m.
England and Davis, he testifies, were busy stomping on the detainees’ toes and fingers. Graner was hollering at the detainees. A sergeant yelled for them to stop, then left.
Graner told the others to strip the detainees. Harman wrote “rapist” on one detainee’s bare leg.
Frederick said, “Watch this,” then punched a detainee so hard in the chest that the detainee lost his breath and fell to his knees, Sivits testified. They called a medic, who stabilized the detainee’s breathing.
Later, the fully stripped detainees then were forced into a pyramid formation and photographed. Next, they were lined up against a wall. England posed near their genitals, giving her plucky thumbs-up sign.
“Pfc. England was making comments about the size of their penises,” Sivits testifies.
Although it was expressly prohibited, Sivits and all the rest took pictures of the naked prisoners. Like souvenirs.
Asked to sum up the mood, Sivits says, “Cpl. Graner, he seemed like he was enjoying it. Pfc. England was laughing. Harman seemed like she was disgusted with it. … Sgt. Frederick was his normal mellow self.”
Both Graner and Frederick said they’d been told to soften up prisoners, Sivits testifies. Asked by a prosecutor why he told no one what he’d witnessed or participated in, he says Graner had told him “that I did not see (expletive), sir.”
Later, a defense lawyer asks, “Were you ordered to not see (expletive) or asked to not see (expletive)?”
“I felt like I was ordered,” Sivits says.
(Days later, Arn recommended that three charges against England be dropped – which knocked one year off the maximum possible sentence of 38 years – and that England face court martial on 17 charges: 10 counts of detainee abuse; five counts of indecent acts; and two counts of disobeying an order, including “wrongfully creating sexually explicit photographs of herself.” A general will make the final decision on which charges will be tried.)
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The prisoner abuse photos are well known: simulated sex between prisoners, prisoners terrorized by police dogs; prisoners, including women, forced into nudity; some beaten.
Less known are pictures showing a soldier simulating sex with a dead goat’s head, soldiers blowing up a cow and shooting a cat’s head, a smiling soldier holding her face next to the swollen face of a dead detainee packed on ice. And the raw sex shots of England and Graner doing things to each other, and of England doing things to herself.
These are the kinds of things that prompted former defense secretary James Schlesinger, chair of an independent investigation, to label the activities of the troops at Abu Ghraib as “brutality and purposeless sadism” and “deviant behavior.”
His report, and an Army report also released last month, essentially concluded that the abuse occurred in part because of a failure of military leadership. The Army report also found what the MP defendants of Abu Ghraib have alleged: Military intelligence interrogators sought the soldiers’ help in using harsh tactics against detainees.
England’s defense argues that she and others were just following the lead of a command structure that saw the humiliation of detainees as part of the interrogation strategy.
Curiously, England wasn’t supposed to be handling detainees at all. Hers was a desk job in a different prison building.
She’d been reprimanded for sneaking out of her quarters late at night to go hang out with Graner at the hard site, her supervisor testified earlier this summer. The late hours were affecting her daytime duties, he said, and she had been counseled four times in six months after being caught in Graner’s bed. For a time, she was under orders not to leave her quarters unescorted unless she was going to work, church, the bathroom or for meals.
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“Lynndie’s looking at 38 years for this stuff,” Roy Hardy, an England family attorney and friend, says by phone from Mineral County, W.Va, where England is from. “That’s the part that disturbs me the most. Thirty-eight years is a lot for standing, even smiling into the camera, when there’s very few allegations that she really hurt anybody.”
What about the toe- and finger-stomping? “Let’s even assume that she did. What’s that worth? Thirty-eight years?”
England is just a scapegoat, he believes, taking the fall while more senior figures do not. He’s even more convinced of this since the release of those recent investigative reports that identified about 50 others who were either involved in the abuse or who did not report it.
“When are they going to charge the other people that were involved?” he asks.
“It’s just amazing how many people don’t understand what the concept of scapegoat means,” he says, “It doesn’t necessarily mean an innocent person. It just means a person held out in front of everybody else.”
England went off to the military so she could finance college and a hoped-for career as a meteorologist. Press accounts say the war rattled her so badly that, on home leave last year, the sound of thunder had her jumping up in the middle of the night hollering about mortar rounds.
“Lynndie told me, months before this ever broke, that they were shot at every day and mortared every night,” Hardy says.
The England family isn’t talking to the press these days. Hardy says “they have a very strong family bond and they are sticking together very well.”
It’s been hard for the town, too. Folks around Fort Ashby, England’s home town, as well as Keyser, which is Hardy’s town, have taken the scandal extra hard because of the backhanded cultural slap many of them feel in the way England and her community have been described.
Yes, her family lives in a trailer park. And sure, it’s hill country. But they object to the idea that they are “recycled hillbillies” prone to gullibility, as an anonymous government official was quoted as saying in a Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker.
The families in the region are just ordinary hard-working people. England’s mother, Terrie, stays at home; her father, Kenneth, is a laborer, says Hardy. Their youngest, Josh, just graduated high school. And England’s older sister, Jessica, also is a homemaker.
It is a region of hardscrabble living and limited opportunities, so some of the young women join the military, and end up at war. The much-hailed Pfc. Jessica Lynch, that other iconic face from Iraq, also is from West Virginia, from tiny Palestine on the other side of the state.
But one became a heroine; the other, a source of shame, part of a crew of soldiers who somehow went over the edge and engaged in abuse like “something out of sport,” as one witness, Spc. Israel Rivera, an Army intelligence analyst, described it during the England hearings.
So the England family awaits the outcome of the looming court martial. The family is braced, says Hardy.
“The baby will be living with her mother if Lynndie does have to go to jail.”
The baby, by the way, is a boy.