A Soldier's Tale
By Tara McKelvey
It's early afternoon. England looks out the prison window at a grassy area bathed in Southern California sunlight. Two people are sitting outside at a table. A golden retriever lies nearby on the lawn. "That's Evelyn," England says. "She's one of the dogs we work with in the prison program. We start them at eight weeks, and we train them to help the handicapped. They work in nursing homes, or help deaf people. Some of the dogs live with people who have panic attacks. The dog knows beforehand that a panic attack is coming on, and they can make a signal so the person can get their medication before it's too late."
When she describes the dogs, England's face lights up. Her mom, Terrie, has two cats, Sadie and Piggy. Until she gave birth to her daughter, Jessie had three. As kids, she and England used to watch Where the Red Fern Grows, a film based on a Wilson Rawls novel about a 10-year-old and his two hunting dogs in the Ozarks during the Depression. The video still sits on a shelf in her parents' trailer.
"We love animals cats, dogs," says Jessie. "We're real tender with them." Usually.
In June 2003, a group of about 20 soldiers, including England, Graner, Specialist Sabrina Harman, Staff Sergeant Ivan L. Frederick II, and Specialist Joseph M. Darby, were deployed for duty in Iraq. The first stop: the Hilla camp, 58 miles south of Baghdad, where the army was training new Iraqi police officers. The American forces took up residence in an abandoned date-processing factory, a big, open space, like an airplane hangar, but screaming hot and full of bird shit.
Not long into their stay, two of the soldiers appeared at the base one day with animal carcasses. They'd found a dead goat and a dead cat somewhere and started slicing them up. Someone took a photo of a soldier pretending to have sex with the goat's head. "Then they cut off the cat's head and shoved it on the top of a soda bottle," England says.
For several weeks, the decaying animal heads provided entertainment for the soldiers. "Someone put sunglasses on them, and put the rifle next to the heads and took a picture. Some soldiers put a cigarette in the cat's mouth," she says. The soldiers stashed the severed heads in their rooms.
"It was funny," England says. "So funny."
During that time, Graner instigated another kind of amusement: sexually charged weekly theme parties in the barracks. "Naked Chem-Light Tuesday," he called it. A Chem-Light is a light stick used by soldiers that's akin to a flashlight, containing hydrogen peroxide and a fluorescent dye packaged in a small plastic tube. Break it open, and the stuff glows for hours. One night, Graner pulled his shorts down, poured the contents of a Chem-Light onto his penis, and walked around naked.
In October 2003, the soldiers set aside their games and headed for their next assignment: Abu Ghraib.
Janis Karpinski remembers the day England arrived at Abu Ghraib in 2003. "She came in a carload of 20 soldiers," she recalls. "On their way to the prison they hit an IED [improvised explosive device]. It didn't hurt them, but it was a real 'welcome to Baghdad' moment." England and the other soldiers climbed out of the vehicle. Karpinski greeted them. "I shook her hand it was very small. She's small, you know. Not assertive or aggressive. Honestly, she was young and innocent. I know those words don't seem to apply to the pictures she was in. But when I touched her, I felt fear."
England arrived in the thick of intense fighting. Insurgents launched mortar attacks at night. During the day, snipers trained their weapons on guards. In between, prisoners threatened to riot, walking in circles, chanting in protest. England worked in a processing office. She had no real business being in Tier 1A, where Graner worked, the wing of the prison where suspected insurgents were held. But she'd slip over there at 10 p.m. and wait for Graner in his cot. "In situations like Iraq, the first thing some young female soldiers look for is a protector a senior male, let's say, who's sitting in a vehicle with her," says Karpinski. "She says, 'I'm really afraid.' And he says, 'Don't worry.' A closeness develops. It's intentional on his part. And naive on hers. Graner is a big, hunky guy. He can probably put his arms around England and still touch his shoulders. Does she feel safe with him? Yes. And all she has to do is be sexually wild with him."
And pose for more pictures. In a supply room, Graner takes a shot of England performing oral sex. England adds a flourish for the photos: a thumbs-up sign. In another photo, England is standing near a detainee, Hayder Sabbar Abd, a 34-year-old taxi driver, as he is being made to simulate masturbation. Again, she gives a thumbs-up.
Why did she let Graner take all those pictures? Wasn't she afraid he'd show them to people? "I didn't want him to take the pictures," England tells me. "But he took pictures of everything. He kept a camera in his cargo pocket. He was always taking his camera out. Sometimes he took the pictures for himself. Sometimes he took them for documentation."
According to Frederick, who was deposed during the military trial, "[Graner] always talked about being in Desert Storm, and the things he saw and did, and he had no way to prove these things happened. So this time around, he said he was going to take pictures to take back home as proof."
England remembers one detainee, "Gus." (The prisoner's real name has not been released.) "He didn't like Americans," she says. Gus was a "small man weighing approximately 100 pounds," according to government documents. He was mentally ill; he had smeared his own feces on his body and threatened to kill some of the guards. One autumn night, Graner went into his cell with a leash (a "tie-down strap," according to the documents). Gus was submissive. Graner put the strap around his neck, led him out of the cell, and handed the strap to England. Then he took a picture and sent the jpeg to his family in Pennsylvania.
"Look what I made Lynndie do," Graner wrote in the email.
Another prisoner, Hussein Mohssein Mata Al-Zayiadi, testified he was beaten and forced on top of a human pyramid. The abuse took place at night and into the early morning hours of November 8, 2003, England's 21st birthday.
Who came up with the idea? "It wasn't us, it was his daddy," England says, nodding at Carter, who's sitting next to her. She reaches over and kisses him on the forehead, while he grapples with a plastic airplane and then shoves it across the table.
Where did Graner get the idea? "He said it was because it was a narrow corridor, and it would be better to put them all together and that it would keep them busy. He didn't tell us what he was going to do before he did it. He just told us as we were doing it."
A photograph of the human pyramid was used as a screen saver on a computer at the prison, according to a military investigation. Testifying in court, Al-Zayiadi said he'd believed Americans were good when they removed Saddam Hussein from power in April 2003. The events that November changed his view.
"What occurred that night has humiliated him so much so that he has wanted to kill himself," according to England's court-martial. "But he does not have the means to do so, because he is still in Abu Ghraib."
Karpinski remembers when she first saw the photos. It was late one evening at Camp Victory, a military base in Baghdad. "A colonel came into my office with a folder. When I opened it, the first thing I saw was a human pyramid. There's little Lynndie England, looking like some two-bit prison-marm with that cigarette dangling out of her throat and her thumbs-up. I was shocked."