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May 19, 2009

A Soldier's Tale

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England has taken the tortoiseshell clips out of her hair now, letting it fall around her cheekbones. She doesn't like the feeling. But her military attorney has advised her to grow her hair longer, to try and look more feminine. Softer. She shakes her head and makes a face. England is up for parole this fall, but chances are, Hardy says, she'll serve out her term. She was found guilty of mistreating detainees, conspiracy, and committing an indecent act. Although she was not found guilty of actual physical abuse, she received one of the harshest punishments of those implicated in the debacle.

It's been two-and-a-half years since the scandal broke. Does England feel bad about what happened at Abu Ghraib? Guilty? Has her opinion about what she did changed?

"Yeah," she says, nodding her head. "I can't explain why."

She looks at the floor and is silent. When she speaks, she does so carefully — the way she's been coached.

Clearly, England has confided in her lawyer about things she saw or did that never came up in court, and Hardy wants to protect her from any new charges. So he has counseled her to say, "I heard," or "There were rumors," or "I was told," when she describes things.

"Some of them were nice," she says, referring to the detainees. "Some of them spoke English. Some of them hated Americans."

Is it true that an American contractor sexually assaulted an Iraqi boy in prison?

"I heard rumors he did things to boys in the cell," she says.

Were men hung in their cells with their arms tied behind their backs?

Hardy gives England a stern look. "Remember what I said," he tells her.

"I was told there were hangings of people in the doorways of cells," she says.

England doesn't flinch when she mentions them. It reminds me of her reaction to the mutilated animals in Hilla — so strange, from a self-described animal lover. In both cases, she seems utterly detached, a slight, awkward smile fluttering across her face.

Terrie and Jessie are sitting in a McDonald's off I-68 near LaVale, MD, one day after their visit with England. Carter is there, too, chugging a container of chocolate milk, oblivious to the drama his family is caught up in.

Graner, England had told me back at the prison, never admitted to being Carter's father. "He's not on the birth certificate," she said. "In order to get that, we'd need a paternity test. That would give him rights, and I don't want him to have any. I don't want him around Carter." What will she tell him about his father? "I don't know." Has he asked about him? "Sometimes."

Inside the McDonald's, Carter reaches for a fistful of Chicken McNuggets. "Daddy!" he shouts, trying out a new word. Terrie explains that's what he's taken to calling Ken, England's father. Usually, the family just lets it slide. Nobody wants to tell Carter his father is a prisoner in the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, KS — and that he doesn't want to see his son.

I figure now is as good as any a time to mention that some people say England must have been abused as a child. That it would help explain her abhorrent behavior. Terrie and Jessie have heard it all before. They say England was never mistreated, sexually or physically. They are an exceptionally close trio: playfully teasing, quarreling, protecting one another. When they were children, Jessie looked out for her little sister, pulling other kids aside in the school cafeteria and telling them to knock it off when they made fun of England's wandering eyes (a medical condition that has improved as she's gotten older). These days, Terrie worries about England incessantly; on one afternoon alone in San Diego, she popped at least three Xanaxes. ("I love my mom, but I'm like, 'Breathe!'" says Jessie.)

Neither does it seem right to call England "overly compliant," as a court psychologist suggested during the trial. She did, after all, stand up to her mother when Terrie didn't want her to join the army; she stood up to her family when they disapproved of Graner; and to the Pilgrim's Pride supervisors when they looked the other way.

One thing, though, is certain. England was a small-town girl, not even of legal drinking age, when she found herself halfway around the world, in an amoral place, surrounded by violence and infatuated with a volatile, manipulative man.

"You have to understand that it builds into a crescendo," says Karpinski. "Lynndie is away from the flagpole, in Abu Ghraib — the most terrible place. You're being mortared every night. You are breathing dust and broken concrete. It's hot. You feel dehumanized. You're drained of every bit of compassion that you have. She did it because she wanted to come back from this godforsaken war and be able to say, 'We did this for the government.' She was made to believe that this was of such importance to national security. It was, you know, 'You stick with me, kid, and you might even win a medal.'"

"Graner was her protector," Karpinski continues. "She wanted to please him, and she'd do anything he told her to do. She's thinking, 'Graner would never tell me the wrong thing. I'm sleeping with him. I trust him.'"

Now England can't take any of it back. She seems resigned. "They're never going to clear my name," she told me earlier. "Everybody knows who I am." These days, she's trying to prepare for a future with her son — learning to repair computer and electronic equipment, so she'll have a trade when she gets out. "Now I can fix anything," she said.

She's been checking on salaries for electricians in Fort Ashby through a software program that prisoners are allowed to use: "Thirty-five thousand a year." England has also been taking a parenting course. She and the other inmates role-play: One person acts like a parent, and another is the child. A third inmate writes down strategies the "parent" uses.

"Although," she said as our last prison visit came to an end, "after spending time with Carter this weekend, I went back to my cell last night and was like, 'You can throw all the stuff I've learned in my parenting class out the window.'"

Finishing up a cup of black coffee at McDonald's, Terrie shares her own perspective on how hard it is to be a mother. "People say they understand what I'm going through," she says, keeping an eye on Carter as he bats at his McNuggets.

"I want to say, 'You have no idea what it's like to have your daughter be the cause of a worldwide scandal.'"

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