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May 19, 2009

A Soldier's Tale

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The lawn at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar is golf-course thick, and rosebushes are planted alongside the prison's exterior walls. An American flag, hanging from an anchor-shaped pole, ripples in the breeze. Jessie, Carter, and Terrie, a former housekeeper who carries her daughter's metal dog tags in her purse, sit in the prison visitors' room, behind thick, reinforced glass doors guarded by military officers. I wait for England, who has agreed to give her first print interview ever. A few minutes later, she walks down a narrow hallway toward us. Terrie, who is holding Carter, raises him up high. He's quiet — not wiggling or hollering, like he usually does. Mother and son reach their hands toward each other. No tears, no drama. England takes Carter in her arms; he hugs her tight, and England breaks into a smile.

Inside the visitors' room, mothers, sisters, and wives of prisoners sit at plastic tables, holding hands with inmates as they catch up on family gossip. Nobody seems to notice England. But she's used to being overlooked. That's how things were in Fort Ashby, at least according to the locals. "How many people pay attention to the grocery store cashier?" says Lorraine Boles, 71, a clerk at Fort Ashby Books, not far from the IGA where England worked as a checkout girl during high school. "I have a vague picture of one of the girls who worked there — the one I think was Lynndie. She had a pretty smile."

Fort Ashby is nice enough; there's just not much to it: a 7-Eleven, two bars, Evan's Dairy Dip, and '70s songs by Kansas and Heart on the local radio. The median family income is $32,375, but many earn far less. England's father, a night-shift railroad-utility worker, makes $1500 a month, not counting overtime. No one in the family has earned a college degree, though Jessie got the closest, finishing half a semester at Potomac State College in Keyser, WV. These days, the IGA where Lynndie worked is shuttered. An "Authorized West Virginia WIC Vendor" sticker on the front door is faded and peeling. Nearby, the Englands' $200-a-month trailer sits on a dirt-and-gravel patch of land. On hot summer afternoons, the park smells faintly of manure from the neighboring farm. A rooster crows, and sheep bleat in their pens. Jessie, her husband, James, and their 2-year-old daughter, Allee, live in a mobile home a few yards away.

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