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May 19, 2009

A Soldier's Tale

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Growing up, England wore her hair short and no makeup. She hit softballs with her sister, joined the Future Farmers of America, and played cops and robbers, firing off pop guns as she ran through the uncut fields around her home. "Lynndie was always the cop. That was her big thing," says Jessie. "Guess that didn't work out too good for her."

Her ticket out of the trailer park was the U.S. Army. At age 17, England signed up in a Pittsburgh recruiter's office, over the protests of her mother. "I honestly didn't think there would be a war. But I was ready to go if there was one," England tells me. "I joined because I wanted to. And I wanted to pay for college."

The army put England on its reservist list. In the meantime, she hung out with James Fike, a former IGA stock boy who now worked at Pilgrim's Pride, a chicken-processing plant in Moorefield, WV, where England also got a job, for $10.50 an hour. (Jessie worked at the plant as well.) At Pilgrim's, England helped oversee the marinating and packaging of chicken. "Not long after I started working there, I noticed some chicken parts were discolored and diseased-looking, but the workers still sent them down the line at the plant," she tells me. "I told my supervisors." They ignored her. One night in July 2001, several months after she'd started her job, England got fed up. She walked over to her sister and took off her smock.

"What are you doing?" Jessie asked. "We've only been at work for an hour."

"I quit," England said, and walked out the door. "I didn't like the way management was doing things," England explains. "People were doing bad things. They'd let bad chicken go through the line — chicken that still had blood on it — and look the other way. Management didn't care."

Three years later, employees at England's plant were secretly videotaped throwing live chickens against a wall, twisting the neck of one until its head popped off, stomping on the animals, and suffocating them, according to a PETA investigation. "Besides being overly gross," says Jessie, "it was, like, morally wrong." Several employees were fired. England, then, was a whistle-blower. "A lot of people complained about it," she says defensively when I point this out. "It wasn't just me." Did it ever occur to her, I ask, to protest two years later, when things seemed wrong on the job at Abu Ghraib? She looks down at her hands and doesn't answer.

"Yeah, I thought it was weird," England says eventually. She's describing the human pyramid that was built in the hallway of Abu Ghraib and then photographed. As she talks, she's watching Carter play with a picture book. "We were told we were supposed to do those things. They said, 'Good job. Keep it up.'"

"Most people don't make up their excuse until after they are in trouble," says lawyer Hardy. He explains how England told him, four-and-a-half months before the scandal broke, that things weren't right at Abu Ghraib. It was December 2003, when England walked into his office, across the street from the courthouse in Keyser, WV.

Hardy, a tall, flirty, dark-haired Gulf War vet with an imposing gut who offers a discount to members of the military, greeted her in his office. England was home from Iraq on a two-week leave and wanted legal advice on getting a divorce from Fike, whom she'd married in March of 2002.

Apparently, she'd fallen for another man — a soldier. That afternoon, England and Hardy talked about Iraq. She spoke of Abu Ghraib, and how they would "smoke" the detainees — the code word for forcing prisoners to exercise until the point of collapse — as well as making them walking around wearing women's underwear on their heads and other unusual disciplinary measures.

"She told me their job was to keep them awake: Let them sleep a little bit and then wake them back up. I said, 'Are you allowed to do that?' And she said, 'Oh yeah, that's what we're told to do,'" says Hardy. "She told me the officers were involved; they knew what was going on. There were a lot of what she called 'OGAs.'"

Officially, OGA stands for "other government agency." But everyone in the army knows it means the CIA. It also means, don't ask questions.

"It's a different situation than just working at McDonald's," says Jessie. "If you're told to do something by someone who's higher-ranking in the military, you do it. If you don't, you're going to be court-martialed. Lynndie basically found out you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. And being in love with Graner, that made it even harder."

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