Books

The Town the Torturers Came From

News of Abu Ghraib shook the small, working-class hometown of the soldiers involved in the scandal.

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.

Linda Comer kept hearing the words Abu Ghraib on television as she flipped through the channels. At first, she tried to ignore it. Her husband, sixteen years her junior, was working at the prison. But he was having an affair with another soldier, and his and his unit's well-being was low on her list of concerns. Plus, she rationalized, it could be any one of a number of units stationed at the prison. That night a reporter woke her up with a call about the scandal, and she realized that her husband's unit had been directly involved — and by proxy she was as well.

Linda runs the local Army Family Readiness Group (FRG), which is like a PTA for the military, and provides a support network for military families, with meetings once a month. Particularly for the families of members of the National Guard and the Reserves, who don't live on military bases and have never prepared for deployment, FRGs can be a crucial lifeline while soldiers are deployed. Sometimes it is practical things that families need, such as help navigating health insurance paperwork or finding emergency funds when single mothers can't cover child care, but just as often people need emotional support from someone who is going through the same difficulties. FRGs are also the key source for information about the units'deployments when soldiers aren't able to call home. Before long, families were calling Linda, frantic to know what was happening.

Linda loves the attention that her position with the FRG brings her. She calls herself "proactive"; others use words like "busybody," "attention hungry," and "cliqueish." Linda likes to be at the center of things and tends to get overly involved. She dishes out unit gossip about who is sleeping with whom and who is neglecting his or her parental duties, as she dramatically rolls her eyes. But when it came to the scandal, she says that she didn't want to know the details — in fact, she asked people not to tell her. If she knew more, she says, she wouldn't be able to resist telling everyone about things she thought no one should know. "We're trained not to talk about the war," explains Linda. "What happens in Iraq stays in Iraq."

Linda also admits that when she finally sat down and looked at the images, she wasn't ruffled. "The photos were pretty vivid," she says, "but honestly, I didn't feel anything at all. That might sound weird, but war is war." After the scandal broke, she told me, the recruiting center filled with high school seniors, who "were just fascinated by that kind of thing. They liked that you could do that in the military, and they wanted to be a part of it, part of that unit."

The soldiers' gear was already back stateside, and welcome-home plans had been made, but with the scandal, the soldiers were kept in the Middle East, away from public scrutiny. Linda and the other families went into high gear to make sure all the soldiers in the unit, accused or not, knew that the town was behind them.

Families stapled yellow ribbons to utility poles and hung posters that read "Support the Troops" and "Jeremy Sivits our hometown hero" around town. They wrote letters of sympathy to families and complaints to congressmen about how unfair it was to prosecute low-level soldiers for following orders. A petition to "Free Lynndie" was set up at the counter of the local dollar store. Bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with "Free Chip Frederick,” one of the soldiers facing charges, were distributed by his family.

Linda called the families of the accused to let them know she was there for them. But Linda and the other families did not call Joe Darby's wife, Bernadette [Editor's note: Joe Darby was the whistleblower in the Abu Ghraib scandal). If she were to come to an FRG meeting, Linda says they would have talked to her. But Becky McClarran, an active member of the FRG, says it would have been "embarrassing and uncomfortable, to say the least."

On the rainy eve of the arraignments for Sergeant Javal Davis, Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, and Specialist Charles Graner, and the sentencing of Jeremy Sivits, supporters organized candlelight vigils throughout the area. The plan was to hold them every Saturday afternoon until the troops came home.

In Hyndman, a small community north of Cumberland, more than two hundred people showed up at the open chapel on a campground — impressive for a town of less than one thousand. They lit candles and prayed for support. The Boy Scouts sang "America Gives Me Liberty, but Jesus Gives Me Love," and the crowd waved small American flags. Jeremy's father, Daniel, wearing a black MIA bandanna, told the crowd, "I want to make explicitly clear that Jeremy, no matter what, is still my son. . . . He is always a vet in my heart and in my mind." Thomas Cunningham, Hyndman's former mayor, created an informal committee, misguidedly hoping that if its members made enough noise to keep the incident in the public eye, they could help get Sivits exonerated.

That same evening in downtown Cumberland, more than fifty people gathered in the rain for a candlelight vigil. People stubbornly relit their candles every time they were extinguished by the drizzling rain. High school student Becca Graham sang "God Bless America," and a church choir member did a solo of "The Star Spangled Banner." "For those accused of abuse or crimes, let them know that they are still your children, no matter what they have done or allegedly have done," Lutheran Reverend Stephen Yelovich recited during a prayer. As a team of reporters looked on, Tom Landaker, the pastor of the First Baptist Church and the chaplain for the local Vietnam Veterans of America, led a prayer at one of the vigils, asking God to give everyone the strength to withstand the liberal media's "poisonous views of our community."

"It was probably the best summer the Holiday Inn has ever had. The reporters were just like locusts swooping down," said Becky McClarran, laughing. Becky became the self-appointed unofficial spokesperson for families with soldiers in the 372nd, a natural role given her maternal protectiveness and her small public relations company in town. Reporters showed up on people's porches with cameras and microphones. They telephoned soldiers' families, knocked on their doors, and harassed her son, the one soldier who had returned early. "The families were horrified," reports Linda Comer. "They felt like they were being prosecuted, and they were, in their own way. Let the courtmartial do it, not the media." Cameramen trailed families of the accused like paparazzi.

Nowhere was safe. They descended on the IGA supermarket where Lynndie had worked; the Big Claw, where members of the 372nd often drink on drill weekends; and the local VFWs. Reporters sat on top of the roof of the Tasti-Freeze, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lynndie's family, knocked on doors of any house with yellow ribbons, and camped out on the side of the road.

Only a month earlier, hundreds of locals had lined that road, flags in hand, saluting and crying, at the funeral procession for local boy Brandon Davis, who was killed by an IED near Fallujah. Now, a CNN helicopter hovered over the trailer park where the Englands lived. The owner of that trailer park banned any and all reporters, and the Army put up a fence around the unit's headquarters. Other helicopters circled one of the local high schools. Scared students frantically called home. Jeremy’s mother, Holly Sivits, had to leave her job at the local dollar store after her boss got upset about reporters following her to work. She and her husband dropped out of their social circles for a while and had someone park a tractor trailer, decorated with miniature flags and yellow ribbons, in front of their house to shield them from the public.
Lynndie's older sister, Jessica Klinestiver, and her best friend, Destiny Goin, held a press conference at the volunteer fire department to try to counter the negative press coverage. As cameras flashed in their faces, they held up photos of Lynndie before the scandal — on vacation with Graner, hugging her brother Josh, and dressed up for her high school prom. Klinestiver defended her sister. "Certain people in the Army told her to do what she did. She follows orders. I don't believe my sister did what she did in those photos. I believe they were posed," she said. "I'm very proud of my sister."

Locals were angry that the press was trying to perpetuate an image of the soldiers as "recycled hillbillies" and their towns as backwoods, straight out of the movie Deliverance. "The reporters came in here and went into the corner bar, probably the most run-down place around here, and interviewed the guy with no teeth who is there from one p.m. until midnight," says Renee, who played softball with Lynndie back in high school and returned to the area after college to work at an espresso bar.

"Just because someone is from here and lived in a trailer park doesn't mean that they are going to do those things," says Renee. "People got very defensive of their town, and that, in turn, helped people defend Lynndie, too." That defensiveness was everywhere. Ask people in town what they think of Lynndie, and they will respond that she is local, and that is all they need to know. One of the local recreation boards hired Lynndie to run the annual Strawberry Festival. A woman answering the phone at one of the VFWs told me, "We one hundred percent support Lynndie. The child got a wrong deal. She was a very nice, gullible person." Most people refused to say anything more. When I asked a bricklayer hanging out in the bar next door to the trailer park where Lynndie grew up whether what she had done was wrong, he said, "No. She was a local resident; I knew her dad. She was a young kid who used to work at the supermarket. She was just doing her job." He was angry that I was down there asking questions, and, like others, he wondered out loud why he was even talking to me.

I traveled to Cumberland, in the western panhandle of Maryland, to understand this town that the media dubbed Torture Town, USA. I wanted to understand the perspectives of those who blame the whistleblower, not the abusers or even the higher-ups in the administration, who had ordered and authorized the detainee treatment. "It started with one action: Darby," says Linda. "One soldier embarrassed the whole country, from the president on down. Because of him, the president had to come out and talk about this."

Cumberland is a veteran's town more than it is a military town. Sixteen percent of the county's population are veterans, meaning there is military blood in most families. A giant "Let's Roll" sign hangs on one house; trucks are covered with Support the Troops magnets and mini flags on the antennas. Flags have always blanketed the town, long before 9/11.

The expanded veteran outpatient clinic now offers tele-psychiatry sessions, basically a shrink via TV, to deal with all of the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Military recruiters working out of a storefront in a Cumberland strip mall have always had it easy. They offer more than a hard-to-come-by paycheck and a ticket out: they offer honor, responsibility, and meaning, things that are rare in Appalachia. Even when asked, local soldiers and veterans don't complain that the military often doesn't follow through with its promises of benefits. They see that they are taking the brunt of the cost of the war, but that there is also an honor in being the ones to lead Iraqis to freedom.

The area is a union stronghold but without enough factories left to make that meaningful. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson stood on the steps of Cumberland's city hall to address the very people he was trying to save through his War on Poverty. "Poverty not only strikes at the needs of the body. It attacks the spirit and it undermines human dignity," he told the crowd. But neither the coal-mining industry nor the later manufacturing boom, now bust, has been enough to win that battle. Of "the big four" factories in the area, only the paper mill is left, which is mentioned more in conversations about the toxic smell in the air and the unfishable branch of the Potomac than in discussions about jobs. The world stopped needing bias-ply tires, and upgrading the machinery to make radials was expensive, so in 1986 on Thanksgiving weekend, 1,675 workers at the Kelly-Springfield tire plant lost their jobs, something that is still mentioned with disbelief. The plant had been in operation sixty-six years. "It is like a sonic boom," Kelly's president, Clifford Johnson, told the local paper at the time. The company's motto, "Quality Not Quantity," became obsolete.

Four years earlier, the Celanese synthetic fiber factory, which in the 1940s employed more than 10,000 people, laid off its final 310 workers, and those at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory dwindled from 500 to 50 to none. The local breweries that produced beers with names like "Sweetlife" and "American" survived Prohibition and the Depression, only to be put under by larger consolidated companies in the seventies. A one-step counseling center for recently laid-off workers was set up in an abandoned storefront. Politicians called for relaxed environmental laws to attract industry; others courted the federal government for a prison or looked to tourism to boost the local economy.

Now the 161-acre property that used to house the Celanese factory, whose public swimming pool charged only twenty-five cents per person, has been turned into a prison complex. It is a sweeping expanse of glimmering barbed wire, corrugated-metal buildings, and the jammed parking lot for the hundreds of employees who work at the complex. The prison is infamous for prisoner abuse. In 2008, four guards were convicted for brutally beating inmates; another two were fired and charged for the same. In 2004 inmate Ifeanyi Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, died there under circumstances that are still disputed. Next door to the Western Correctional Institution is the brand-new $ 24.8 million Panopticon prison, built by out-of-state contractors and lauded as a state-of-the-art maximum-security facility.

Four miles from the prisons, barely across the West Virginia state line, sits another of the area's major employers, Alliant Tech. Between 1985 and 2006, the plant won $ 250 million in earmarks, thanks to Senator Robert Byrd, known as the "pork king." As the nation's largest military ammunition plant, it made $ 4.2 billion in 2008, largely from military contracts. While most of the economy is dying, the "Rocket Center" plant had been adding hundreds of new employees each year. To meet the demand for missile defense systems, it is partnering with colleges and high schools to prepare kids as young as the eighth grade for entry-level jobs. The EPA classifies it as a Superfund site because of its high levels of depleted uranium. Even local activists, angry over the links between depleted uranium and Gulf War syndrome, are hesitant to complain, realizing that without those twelve-dollar-an-hour paychecks, many of their neighbors couldn't survive.

With nearly 14 percent of the population living below poverty and 8 percent unemployment, the county is losing people who have lived there for generations. In 2005, the most common jobs were in food service and bars, flipping burgers and pouring beers, which paid an average of $ 218 a week. Most people shop at the local Wal m art, but taxis line up outside the Pay ’N Sav downtown to shuttle people home with their bags of white-labeled generic cans of food. A food bank operates out of a former bread factory. For the first time, homeless people camp out in public doorways downtown, refusing to enter the shelters. The newspaper reported that a high school football player shot himself during a game of Russian roulette; another article described the arrest of a man who stole $ 90,000 worth of cemetery vases to sell for scrap. And this was all before the national recession.

While in Cumberland, I asked people what they thought about the war, and they responded with information about how few jobs there were. Supporting the troops was akin to union solidarity — a pact among the people doing the country's grunt work. As one local ex-Marine told me, "Sometimes you just have to do what you can to get by. And you have to be able to believe in the validity of what you're doing." Like so many working-class towns, everyone believes there's honor in doing a hard day's work if you can find it, no matter what it is.

The Abu Ghraib detainees were humiliated, but as Jimmy Linaburg, who runs C & J Cycles on Warrior Drive, told a Washington Post reporter, "Every stinking day I'm humiliated." Like a quarterback obsessed with his high school glory days, Cumberland tends to prove its worth by pointing to its past. The old trains and canal barges have been turned into historic attractions in a feeble attempt to draw tourism, but, as one local put it, who is going to go visit an old barge they pulled out of the mud? A downtown bank has been transformed into a history museum that largely chronicles yesterday's commerce. Next door, on a shuttered storefront, hangs a small black-and-white photo depicting the store back when business was booming.

In 1806, America's first highway started in Cumberland, but in the 1990s, when the state built a new freeway, it bypassed the town, depriving the citizens of the strip malls and the chain stores that freeways bring. "It put us at a standstill," says Ed Mullaney, who is in charge of downtown development. "We are a throwback in time in many ways, but I mean that in a positive way."

Trains still cut through the downtown area, reminders of a time when being a railroad hub put the town on the map. No one mans the train station where the one daily Amtrak train comes through. "Standing there," one local said, "you don't know if it is coming or not." After 9/11, the small commercial airport, which had mainly catered to Kelly executives back in the day, closed down for good.

When the modern world has literally passed you by, it's easier to hold on to an idealized version of America. In that bubble, insulated against harsh realities, where the local paper reports on church events and not on secret CIA black sites, the myth can survive. America can still stand for apple pie, and war can be pictured as a heroic battle straight out of a John Wayne film. If that is all you have to hold on to, you have to fight to protect it any way you can.

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