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Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada) May 08, 2004

Nevada soldiers who fixed prison 'devastated'

By Keith Rogers

Soldiers of the Nevada military police company that renovated and guarded the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq said Friday they feel disgraced by the Maryland Army Reserve company that relieved them and now is the target of a prisoner abuse and sexual humiliation probe.

'I was devastated. It was unbelievable,' said Capt. Troy Armstrong, commander of the Nevada Army National Guard's 72nd Military Police Company.

He was describing his initial reaction to the pictures of gloating MPs from the 372nd Military Police Company next to naked, kneeling and hunched-over Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, some in sexually explicit positions.

'All our soldiers know you couldn't take pictures of detainees period. And that was crystal clear,' he said.

Armstrong, his first sergeant and three other soldiers from the 72nd spoke openly about their duty at Abu Ghraib during an informal session with reporters at the Nevada National Guard Armory in Henderson.

They said they were appalled by the acts of abuse that have infuriated officials and citizens at home and abroad.

'It pisses you off,' said Spc. Douglas Fry, 26, of Las Vegas. 'It makes the 72nd look bad. The acts of a few knuckleheads makes the United States look bad.'

One of the 19 female MPs and support personnel in the company, Spc. Sandra Flores, said, 'It makes me mad because I know our MPs worked hard to keep this from happening.'

Spc. Michael Roe, 27, of Henderson said those responsible for what he called 'horrendous' acts of abuse need to be jailed themselves. 'We need to show the world we are able to police ourselves and not quote, unquote, cover it up,' he said.

Roe said that during the time he guarded detainees the only time he saw them naked was when they took showers.

'Did I ever see an Iraqi butt? Yes. Did I ever strip someone down and put a leash around their neck? No,' he said.

One photograph that shocked them appeared in newspapers Friday. It shows a woman MP from the Maryland company, identified as Spc. Lynndie England, standing with a leash attached to the neck of a naked detainee on the floor of what Armstrong said is probably the 1-A section of the prison compound.

That cell block, which he said was occasionally guarded at the door by 'one or two' of his MPs, was taken over by military intelligence units when his company of 110 soldiers turned over control of the compound on Oct. 15 to the 372nd, a combat support company twice the size of the Nevada unit.

Armstrong and 1st Sgt. Daryl Keithley said no such abuses occurred during their six-month-long watch at Abu Ghraib.

But near the end of that stint, about the time the Maryland-based 372nd arrived, some changes occurred, particularly in areas holding so-called 'security detainees,' those kept apart from the prison's general criminal population because they were suspected double agents or had intelligence value, such as knowing information about former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

'There was one incident when we were asked to keep detainees awake, to wake them up with metal drums. We said, 'Absolutely not.' I stopped them from doing it,' said Armstrong, a 37-year-old child protective services worker from Las Vegas.

He said he believes the idea to pound trash cans to keep the detainees awake came from military intelligence officials. 'We really weren't involved in M.I. (military intelligence) operations,' he said.

'I'll be frank. There was a request for us to support M.I. operations before we left,' Armstrong said. 'We didn't have the personnel to do it.'

Keithley said there were times when, for safety reasons, soldiers from their company put hoods on detainees to escort them to interrogation sites at the request of military intelligence officials. That was done, he said, to keep them from seeing quarters where MPs lived inside the prison.

Despite revelations out of Geneva on Friday that the International Red Cross had warned U.S. officials more than a year ago about prisoner abuse in Iraq , Armstrong said, those complaints never surfaced in discussions the Red Cross had with his chain-of-command.

'Nobody ever came to us with those complaints and said, 'What are you going to do about it?' ' he said. The only complaints expressed to him were about living conditions at the prison, which his company was trying to resolve through the rebuilding effort, he said.

As conditions improved, Armstrong said, prisoners who were released were often given spare MREs, meals ready to eat, and bottles of water. 'They would hug us and try to kiss us,' Keithley said.

One prisoner returned to give the soldiers gifts, Armstrong said.

He said the 72nd MPs attended classes on the Geneva Convention and laws of war both in Nevada and at Fort Lewis, Wash., before they deployed for Iraq.

They arrived at the Abu Ghraib prison, about 20 miles west of Baghdad, in late May 2003. Their first job was to rebuild much of the mile-square compound, known as a death camp under Saddam's reign.

'When we rolled in, there were sheep herds and goat herds running around in the compound,' Keithley recalled.

There were also reminders of the prison's reputation as a torture ground and death chamber.

Said Armstrong: 'There were gallows with two hanging platforms and gas chambers underneath. We heard rumors about mass graves. We found lots of bones and different things.'

Besides reconstructing the compound and installing concertina wire for holding pens, the company provided force protection along the perimeter, escorted criminals to trial, and ran the Alsahyat jail some 40 miles away in east-central Baghdad.

The first 200 detainees were criminals accused of looting and weapons violations. Eventually the prison population grew to about 800 including security detainees and criminals charged with murder.

Keithley said the prison, in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, was often the target of mortar attacks and small arms fire. Ten soldiers in the 72nd Military Police Company received Purple Heart Medals for their wounds.

No one from the 72nd was killed but two U.S. soldiers from another unit were killed in mortar attacks and three others were killed responding to attacks on the prison. About a dozen Iraqis died in those attacks and some 100 were wounded, he said.

Regarding the six-month-long prison duty, Spc. Fry said, 'It sucked. It wasn't great. We went into a mission and it was wartime.

'We were too busy to ever think about doing anything like this,' he said, referring to prisoner abuse.

'Many times,' he said, 'mortars came to within 50 meters of my tower. I was writing my mother one time and bullets started whizzing over my head.'

While in Iraq, the 72nd was, for the most part, under command of the active duty, 18th Military Police Brigade and the 400th Military Police Battalion.

Armstrong said he reported to Lt. Col. Dale Burtyk, who handed him a copy of A.R. 190-8, Army regulations for handling enemy prisoners of war and civilian internees, and instructed him to review it.

Armstrong, in turn, said he advised his soldiers about the regulations. 'The words I used were be firm, fair and respectful at all times.'

The effort to transfer control of the prison to the 372nd Military Police Company took place in late September and early October.

By Oct. 15, Armstrong had relinquished control to the Maryland company's commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese of New Stanton, Pa. Reese now faces administrative charges in connection with prisoner abuse allegations.

The 72nd traveled in convoys to reach Kuwait for their return to the United States. The last soldiers had arrived in Kuwait by Nov. 10. Armstrong recalled how the prison operation began to change under the new commander.

'Initially they changed a security position, a couple different positions,' Armstrong said, explaining how this reduced security that the 72nd had set up along the stone-wall perimeter.

'But there was nothing that would have led me to believe it would lead to all of this,' he said.


Abu Ghraib prison's history

Key events in the prison's history since its construction by the British in the 1960s.

1984 Up to 4,000 prisoners executed
2000 122 prisoners killed
2001 23 political prisoners executed: Holds up to 15,000 inmates
2002 Saddam Hussein grants amnesty to an estimated 13,000 inmates, all but emptying the prison
2003 United States begins using the facility during occupation

    MAY Nevada's 72nd Military Police Company arrives.
    AUGUST Some 500 prisoners housed in tents
    OCT 15 Nevada's 72nd Military Police Company turns over control to Maryland's 372nd Military Police Company
    MARCH 2004 U.S. Army announces that six military police officers under investigation for alleged abuses.
    APRIL Holds 5,000 inmates.
    APRIL 21 Prison is shelled by suspected guerillas, killing at least 21

SOURCE: GlobalSecurity.org; DigitalGlobe

Copyright 2004, DR Partners d/b Las Vegas Review-Journal