Prison Guards Dispirited by Scandal
MPs in Iraq Describe Anger Over Abuse by Predecessors
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD -- Sgt. Adam Baker never imagined that when he shipped out to Iraq it would be to a prison camp 300 miles south of the capital in the middle of a desert of blowing white sand.
Baker was trained as a forward observer in a National Guard field artillery unit. Rather than scouting enemy troop positions, he stands guard over security detainees at Camp Bucca, a U.S. military holding facility for more than 2,000 prisoners. He said his job has been made more difficult by the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.
"I can't tell you the anguish you go through," said Baker, 22, a short, baby-faced soldier from Pittsburgh. "All this goes down at Abu Ghraib. You can't do anything about it, and you feel" miserable.
The larger implications of the scandal -- eroding the credibility of U.S. military policy in Iraq and raising questions about the chain of command -- means little to Baker, who sat in the heat of his Humvee one recent afternoon watching over detainees in an isolation compound at Bucca.
"After Abu Ghraib, some of the detainees would taunt you," said Baker, who finished the work for a chemistry degree from the University of Pittsburgh while in Iraq. "They'd point to you and say in Arabic, 'No good, no good.' It was bad."
Dozens of military police officers interviewed during the past two weeks at Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib described feelings of anger, resentment and frustration about being caught up in a scandal that they had no part in, feelings shared by other soldiers who were here when the abuse took place.
"Morale is a tough issue right now," said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kauffman, a military guard at Camp Bucca from Dothan, Ala.
Units are stretched thin. Soldiers are working 12-hour shifts at both prisons. Some work 6, 9 or 15 days without a day off. Most of them are Army reservists and National Guard soldiers, called up from their civilian jobs to serve a year in Iraq to do what some described as a tedious, boring job. Although most of the personnel pulling guard duty were trained as military police officers, others are field artillery or Marine expeditionary forces, filling the gap because there are not enough military police.
Their job is to guard the more than 5,000 civilians accused of crimes against the occupation authority, from owning an illegal weapon to killing soldiers.
On Monday morning, as she guided a group of prisoners onto a bus bound for the northern city of Tikrit, where they would be released, Pfc. Angie Kerns, 34, of Leavenworth, Kan., said she has to forget that the detainees don't see her as human.
"I'd shoot them if I had to," said Kerns, a military police officer with the 1st Infantry Division. "But I pray every morning when I leave the gate that I don't have to."
Sgt. Maj. Jeff Butler, of the 16th Military Police Brigade, said he got wind of a possible abuse scandal when he arrived in Iraq in January, and warned other arriving troops that it would cause problems for them.
"We let them know this was coming," said Butler, whose unit oversees soldiers at Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib. "We told them that they were going to be the face on Army Times, on every cover." He added that he knew the scandal would have to become public.
The Pentagon has launched multiple investigations of the abuse, and seven military police officers have been charged with criminal offenses for their roles in it. One has been sentenced to a year in prison; three others face pretrial hearings next week.
But military police commanders who arrived right after the abuse came to light said it was clear to them what had gone wrong.
"Soldiers were walking around out of uniform, mixing civilian and military clothes, stuff written on their helmets," Butler said. "The leadership was just not paying attention to the basic standards. Nobody was making them do the basic soldier things."
At Abu Ghraib, 1st Sgt. Martin Grooms, 35, an Army reservist with the 384th Military Police Battalion, said he made sure that soldiers were following strict standards, even if their living and working conditions were less than ideal.
The soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib live in cellblocks that have been converted into dormitories. They sleep three to a cell, in tight quarters crammed with their trunks and gear. Many have constructed plywood lofts to make better use of the space.
On a visit earlier this week to one of the quarters, Grooms, who in civilian life is a police officer in Fort Wayne, Ind., joked with three soldiers who had just gotten off duty. But as he turned to leave the room, the smile disappeared. "Clean this mess up," he ordered.
"I try to impress on my soldiers that just because we're in a war zone in Iraq, there's no Army regulation that says you act any differently than you do at home," he said.
Military commanders said that MPs in Iraq are now operating in a completely different environment than those who were here last year. Standard operating procedures are posted, along with signs urging soldiers to report suspected abuse. Soldiers also undergo more extensive training on how to interact with detainees.
The commanders expressed confidence that the problems had been fixed and that there is no abuse going on under their watch.
Sgt. Nathan Chase, of Tampa, an Army reservist who in civilian life is a special agent for the Federal Aviation Administration, was standing duty on one beastly hot morning outside a compound of white tents at Camp Bucca.
Although Chase has been a military police officer for 10 years, he never stood guard at a prison. He said he understood how aggravating the detainees could be at times, particularly when they did not obey orders. "But even if you're really mad at someone," he said, "it never crosses your mind to beat them."
On Sunday night in an Abu Ghraib guard tower, Spec. Eric Anderson, 21, a college student from Houlton, Maine, and Spec. Duwayne Moore, 23, a telecommunications technician from Rockford, Ill., watched over two detention compounds.
Anderson said that when his unit arrived at Abu Ghraib in February, the detainees threw food at them. But relations between the guards and detainees have since improved, he said. Guards exchanged greetings with detainees, bantered with those who came to the wire to talk and brought bread when they asked.
"There's a level of respect now," Anderson said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company