Commander Punished as Army Probes Detainee Treatment
Late last month, the Army charged six U.S. soldiers with abusing and mistreating prisoners at the military jail west of Baghdad. In January, three Army reservists were discharged for kicking and punching prisoners at a detention center near the southern city of Basra. In October, eight Marine reservists were charged with mistreating prisoners of war at a camp near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad. Two of them were charged with negligent homicide in a prisoner's death in June.
Another battalion commander in the 4th Infantry Division was disciplined a few weeks before the January incident in Samarra. Late last year, Lt. Col. Allen B. West, commander of an artillery unit, pleaded guilty to beating and threatening to kill an Iraqi prisoner. He was accused of firing his pistol near the prisoner's ear. He was fined $5,000 and relieved of his post.
The January incident was not the first of its kind in the battalion, said one soldier in the battalion who spoke on condition of anonymity. A few months earlier, he said, troops forced an Iraqi to jump from a bridge into the Tigris near Balad. The man survived, subsequently complained and sought compensation, the soldier said. Rudesheim would not discuss details but confirmed such a complaint had been made.
The soldier said that rough handling of detainees was common in his unit but that he thought it was often warranted. "It's a little like the French colonel in 'The Battle of Algiers,' " he said, referring to the 1965 film about the Algerian uprising against French colonial rule. That is, he explained, the French officer said, " 'You're all complaining about the tactics I am using to win the war, but that is what I am doing -- winning the war.' "
Sassaman is one of the Army's higher-profile lieutenant colonels. Twenty years ago he quarterbacked West Point's team to its first bowl game: the 1984 Cherry Bowl, played against Michigan State University (Army won, 10-6). He made headlines for playing much of the season with three cracked ribs, wearing a flak jacket under his uniform to protect his injured torso.
Over the past year, as Sassaman commanded the 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, he was frequently quoted in news accounts. He caused some controversy for a remark he made to the New York Times in December. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Poor discipline and acts of brutality generally are seen as indications of troubled, low-morale units.
But Rudesheim said Sassaman's battalion performed well in Iraq. "This unit has performed superbly for almost an entire year in combat in the Sunni Triangle," he said.
He added, "There were also mitigating circumstances regarding the decisions." Two days before the Samarra incident, he said, one of Sassaman's favorite subordinate officers, an engineering unit captain named Eric T. Paliwoda, had been mortally wounded, and Sassaman had held the dying officer before putting him aboard a medical evacuation flight. "He basically died in Nate's arms," Rudesheim said.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Army Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman was reprimanded for impeding an inquiry into the alleged death of an Iraqi.
(Courtesy Of U.s. Army)