The Town the Torturers Came From
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The following is an excerpt from " Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things," By Justine Sharrock. Published by Wiley Press, copyright 2010.
In early 2004, soldiers from the 372nd National Guard unit began to make vague telephone calls to their families back home in Western Maryland's Appalachia. "Something bad is going on," they warned. "I can't tell you more. But there's going to be trouble."
There were rumors that Lynndie England, home on temporary leave in November, had told her mother about "strange stuff" going on in Iraq. Her mom said that she honestly didn't even want to hear about it and had told Lynndie to just talk to her dad about it instead. Still, her mother worried, and she asked the military whether she could keep Lynndie home through Christmas. The request was denied.
Some families had already received snapshots of abused detainees, which were sent home as trophies of war. Bill Crawford, the executive director of the local Red Cross chapter, got calls from his two stepsons, Jeremy and Mickey McGuire, who were in the unit. Jeremy, Joe Darby's roommate, was nervous about questions the CID investigators were asking him. They wanted to know whether the image of the back of one man's head was his brother Mickey. Such an accusation alone could tarnish a reputation. Jeremy Sivits wrote a letter to his parents, Sissy and Daniel, explaining that he was being investigated for witnessing "some shit that happened in the prison." His father, a Vietnam vet, had warned Jeremy when he first enlisted that he'd disown him if he was ever dishonorably discharged. Now Jeremy wrote, begging his father not to abandon him and saying how scared he was. Chip Frederick had been writing home to his family, telling them about "softening up" prisoners for the interrogators. He said it was difficult seeing the detainees being made to stay kneeling on the floor with their noses to the wall. "A lot end up crying," he wrote. "Sometimes I feel sorry for them, but then I realize that they are the reason I am here, and the feeling goes away." Mostly, though, the accounts were vague.
On April 28, 2004, when the photos of the naked pyramids and the hooded prisoners were splashed on television sets around the nation, the picture became all too clear for everyone. Suddenly, they knew far more than they wanted to. They used to scour the newspapers for any mention of Abu Ghraib, in hopes of details about their soldiers' deployment. Now the phrase was an inescapable household word. Parents and spouses watched, hoping their loved ones weren't directly involved. Others weren't as lucky.
Lynndie's father, Kenneth, saw images of his daughter giving the thumbs-up and leading a prisoner by a leash, as did the welders and the machinists who worked with him at the CSX railroad in town. They continued to pledge allegiance to the flag before each shift, as they have since 9/11, and support him as best they knew how: by not mentioning it.
Meanwhile, a group of public relations experts convened at the Pentagon to advise on how to handle the scandal. To deflect attention from the higher ranks, the administration propagated the "bad apple" spin, stressing that it was the work of a few "recycled hillbillies from Appalachia." As a National Guard unit, most of the soldiers were from the same rural area, so the scandal quickly became a community issue. The families barely had time to process the news when they were called on by the media and the nation at large to explain how their town had birthed such "sick rednecks." Newspapers and television commentators started to debate whether the acts in the photos were examples of torture. Letters from around the country filled the mailboxes of the local newspaper, the city council, and the mayor's office. Cumberland became known as a breeding ground for torturers and was suddenly under siege.