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May 19, 2009

A Soldier's Tale: Lynndie England

She's the face of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Now serving 36 months in military prison, Lynndie England breaks her silence about what happened in Iraq, and how it all started with falling for the wrong man.

lynndie england

Lynndie England

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Lynndie England smells like soap. She rubs her hands constantly, and her cuticles are raw and bleeding. Her hair is pulled back in four tortoiseshell clips, and it's streaked with premature gray. She is no longer the waif-like girl with a devilish grin who appeared in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. On this warm fall afternoon, England, 23, now 30 pounds heavier, wears short-sleeve Army fatigues and black, waffle-soled boots. Her name is stitched across her chest. Dangling from her waist is a yellow-and-white badge that reads, "PRISONER."

This is England's 332nd day of a 36-month sentence. She's serving time in a flat, sandy-colored building surrounded by a 13'4" fence topped with concertina wire at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego. Since her arrival, she hasn't had a single visitor — not even from her family.

Not that people haven't tried. England receives requests every week, according to her lawyer, Roy T. Hardy, who says that she doesn't give interviews. If she did, though, the first step would be reaching out to her family, with whom she is extremely close.

Which is how I'd wound up, four days earlier, in a trailer park situated off Route 46, behind a sheep farm, next to the windowless Roadside Pub in Fort Ashby, WV. I didn't know which home belonged to the Englands, so I chose one at random, then saw a cooler that said CSX — the name of the railroad company England's father, Kenneth, works for — next to the front steps. I knocked on the door. A skinny woman in her mid-40s, clutching a pack of Bronco 100s, answered. After some coaxing, Lynndie's mother, Terrie, invited me into her trailer. Maybe it was an article I showed her that I'd written about female soldiers killed in the war. Maybe it was because I'd come all the way to Fort Ashby (population 1354) to see her. But three days later, I was on a US Airways jet bound for San Diego with Terrie; England's older sister, Jessie, 26; and England's 2-year-old son, Carter Allan, who hadn't seen his mother in almost a year.

By now, people all over the world have heard of Lynndie England. She's the "Small-Town Girl Who Became an All-American Monster," as one Australian newspaper headline described her, or "the girl with a leash," as Mick Jagger calls her in the song "Dangerous Beauty." Yet England remains a mystery. Is she a torturer? A pawn? Another victim of the Iraq war? While the world weighed in, England said very little. She was only 20 when many of the Abu Ghraib photos were taken — so young that her then-boyfriend, Charles Graner, 35, had to buy her drinks for her at an officers' club where they used to hang out in Fort Lee, VA, before their deployment to Iraq. She's lived in near-seclusion since the photos first appeared on 60 Minutes II in April of 2004, speaking to no one but her family, and then only by phone, since going to prison.

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