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Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating Realities of War
Posted on Jul 12, 2007
Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
Fifteen soldiers we spoke with told us the information that spurred these raids was typically gathered through human intelligence—and that it was usually incorrect. Eight said it was common for Iraqis to use American troops to settle family disputes, tribal rivalries or personal vendettas. Sgt. Jesus Bocanegra, 25, of Weslaco, Texas, was a scout in Tikrit with the Fourth Infantry Division during a yearlong tour that ended in March 2004. In late 2003, Sergeant Bocanegra raided a middle-aged man’s home in Tikrit because his son had told the Army his father was an insurgent. After thoroughly searching the man’s house, soldiers found nothing and later discovered that the son simply wanted money his father had buried at the farm.
After persistently acting on such false leads, Sergeant Bocanegra, who raided Iraqi homes in more than fifty operations, said soldiers began to anticipate the innocence of those they raided. “People would make jokes about it, even before we’d go into a raid, like, Oh fucking we’re gonna get the wrong house,” he said. “ ‘Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house.” Specialist Chrystal said that he and his platoon leader shared a joke of their own: Every time he raided a house, he would radio in and say, “This is, you know, Thirty-One Lima. Yeah, I found the weapons of mass destruction in here.”
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As the Alpha Company team leader, Sergeant Bruhns was supposed to be the first person in the door. Skeptical, he refused. “So I said, ‘If you’re so confident that there are a bunch of Syrian terrorists, insurgents…in there, why in the world are you going to send me and three guys in the front door, because chances are I’m not going to be able to squeeze the trigger before I get shot.’ ” Sergeant Bruhns facetiously suggested they pull an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle up to the house and shoot a missile through the front window to exterminate the enemy fighters his commanders claimed were inside. They instead diminished the aggressiveness of the raid. As Sergeant Bruhns ran security out front, his fellow soldiers smashed the windows and kicked down the doors to find “a few little kids, a woman and an old man.”
In late summer 2005, in a village on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Specialist Chrystal searched a compound with two Iraqi police officers. A friendly man in his mid-30s escorted Specialist Chrystal and others in his unit around the property, where the man lived with his parents, wife and children, making jokes to lighten the mood. As they finished searching—they found nothing—a lieutenant from his company approached Specialist Chrystal: “What the hell were you doing?” he asked. “Well, we just searched the house and it’s clear,” Specialist Chrystal said. The lieutenant told Specialist Chrystal that his friendly guide was “one of the targets” of the raid. “Apparently he’d been dimed out by somebody as being an insurgent,” Specialist Chrystal said. “For that mission, they’d only handed out the target sheets to officers, and officers aren’t there with the rest of the troops.” Specialist Chrystal said he felt “humiliated” because his assessment that the man posed no threat was deemed irrelevant and the man was arrested. Shortly afterward, he posted himself in a fighting vehicle for the rest of the mission.
Sgt. Larry Cannon, 27, of Salt Lake City, a Bradley gunner with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, served a yearlong tour in several cities in Iraq, including Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul, beginning in February 2004. He estimates that he searched more than a hundred homes in Tikrit and found the raids fruitless and maddening. “We would go on one raid of a house and that guy would say, ‘No, it’s not me, but I know where that guy is.’ And…he’d take us to the next house where this target was supposedly at, and then that guy’s like, ‘No, it’s not me. I know where he is, though.’ And we’d drive around all night and go from raid to raid to raid.”
“I can’t really fault military intelligence,” said Specialist Reppenhagen, who said he raided thirty homes in and around Baquba. “It was always a guessing game. We’re in a country where we don’t speak the language. We’re light on interpreters. It’s just impossible to really get anything. All you’re going off is a pattern of what’s happened before and hoping that the pattern doesn’t change.”
Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear Operations Center, Forty-Second Infantry Division, for one year beginning in October 2004. He said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources to investigate tips before acting on them. “We’re not police,” he said. “We don’t go around like detectives and ask questions. We kick down doors, we go in, we grab people.”
First Lieut. Brady Van Engelen, 26, of Washington, DC, said the Army depended on less than reliable sources because options were limited. He served as a survey platoon leader with the First Armored Division in Baghdad’s volatile Adhamiya district for eight months beginning in September 2003. “That’s really about the only thing we had,” he said. “A lot of it was just going off a whim, a hope that it worked out,” he said. “Maybe one in ten worked out.”
Sergeant Bruhns said he uncovered illegal material about 10 percent of the time, an estimate echoed by other veterans. “We did find small materials for IEDs, like maybe a small piece of the wire, the detonating cord,” said Sergeant Cannon. “We never found real bombs in the houses.” In the thousand or so raids he conducted during his time in Iraq, Sergeant Westphal said, he came into contact with only four “hard-core insurgents.”
Even with such slim pretexts for arrest, some soldiers said, any Iraqis arrested during a raid were treated with extreme suspicion. Several reported seeing military-age men detained without evidence or abused during questioning. Eight veterans said the men would typically be bound with plastic handcuffs, their heads covered with sandbags. While the Army officially banned the practice of hooding prisoners after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, five soldiers indicated that it continued.
“You weren’t allowed to, but it was still done,” said Sergeant Cannon. “I remember in Mosul [in January 2005], we had guys in a raid and they threw them in the back of a Bradley,” shackled and hooded. “These guys were really throwing up,” he continued. “They were so sick and nervous. And sometimes, they were peeing on themselves. Can you imagine if people could just come into your house and take you in front of your family screaming? And if you actually were innocent but had no way to prove that? It would be a scary, scary thing.” Specialist Reppenhagen said he had only a vague idea about what constituted contraband during a raid. “Sometimes we didn’t even have a translator, so we find some poster with Muqtada al-Sadr, Sistani or something, we don’t know what it says on it. We just apprehend them, document that thing as evidence and send it on down the road and let other people deal with it.”
Sergeant Bruhns, Sergeant Bocanegra and others said physical abuse of Iraqis during raids was common. “It was just soldiers being soldiers,” Sergeant Bocanegra said. “You give them a lot of, too much, power that they never had before, and before you know it they’re the ones kicking these guys while they’re handcuffed. And then by you not catching [insurgents], when you do have someone say, ‘Oh, this is a guy planting a roadside bomb’—and you don’t even know if it’s him or not—you just go in there and kick the shit out of him and take him in the back of a five-ton—take him to jail.”
Tens of thousands of Iraqis—military officials estimate more than 60,000—have been arrested and detained since the beginning of the occupation, leaving their families to navigate a complex, chaotic prison system in order to find them. Veterans we interviewed said the majority of detainees they encountered were either innocent or guilty of only minor infractions.
Sergeant Bocanegra said during the first two months of the war he was instructed to detain Iraqis based on their attire alone. “They were wearing Arab clothing and military-style boots, they were considered enemy combatants and you would cuff ‘em and take ‘em in,” he said. “When you put something like that so broad, you’re bound to have, out of a hundred, you’re going to have ten at least that were, you know what I mean, innocent.”
Sometime during the summer of 2003, Bocanegra said, the rules of engagement narrowed—somewhat. “I remember on some raids, anybody of military age would be taken,” he said. “Say, for example, we went to some house looking for a 25-year-old male. We would look at an age group. Anybody from 15 to 30 might be a suspect.” (Since returning from Iraq, Bocanegra has sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and said his “mission” is to encourage others to do the same.)
Spc. Richard Murphy, 28, an Army Reservist from Pocono, Pennsylvania, who served part of his fifteen-month tour with the 800th Military Police Brigade in Abu Ghraib prison, said he was often struck by the lack of due process afforded the prisoners he guarded.
Specialist Murphy initially went to Iraq in May 2003 to train Iraqi police in the southern city of Al Hillah but was transferred to Abu Ghraib in October 2003 when his unit replaced one that was rotating home. (He spoke with The Nation in October 2006, while not on active duty.) Shortly after his arrival there, he realized that the number of prisoners was growing “exponentially” while the amount of personnel remained stagnant. By the end of his six-month stint, Specialist Murphy was in charge of 320 prisoners, the majority of whom he was convinced were unjustly detained.
“I knew that a large percentage of these prisoners were innocent,” he said. “Just living with these people for months you get to see their character…. In just listening to the prisoners’ stories, I mean, I get the sense that a lot of them were just getting rounded up in big groups.”
Specialist Murphy said one prisoner, a mentally impaired, blind albino who could “maybe see a few feet in front of his face” clearly did not belong in Abu Ghraib. “I thought to myself, What could he have possibly done?”
Specialist Murphy counted the prisoners twice a day, and the inmates would often ask him when they would be released or implore him to advocate on their behalf, which he would try to do through the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps office. The JAG officer Specialist Murphy dealt with would respond that it was out of his hands. “He would make his recommendations and he’d have to send it up to the next higher command,” Specialist Murphy said. “It was just a snail’s crawling process…. The system wasn’t working.”
Prisoners at the notorious facility rioted on November 24, 2003, to protest their living conditions, and Army Reserve Spc. Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, Florida, was there. He had deployed with the 320th Military Police Company to Talil Air Base, to serve in Nasiriya and Abu Ghraib for one year beginning in April 2003. Unlike the other troops in his unit, he did not respond to the riot. Four months earlier he had decided to stop carrying a loaded weapon.
Nine prisoners were killed and three wounded after soldiers opened fire during the riot, and Specialist Delgado’s fellow soldiers returned with photographs of the events. The images, disturbingly similar to the incident described by Sergeant Mejía, shocked him. “It was very graphic,” he said. “A head split open. One of them was of two soldiers in the back of the truck. They open the body bags of these prisoners that were shot in the head and [one soldier has] got an MRE spoon. He’s reaching in to scoop out some of his brain, looking at the camera and he’s smiling. And I said, ‘These are some of our soldiers desecrating somebody’s body. Something is seriously amiss.’ I became convinced that this was excessive force, and this was brutality.”
Spc. Patrick Resta, 29, a National Guardsman from Philadelphia, served in Jalula, where there was a small prison camp at his base. He was with the 252nd Armor, First Infantry Division, for nine months beginning in March 2004. He recalled his supervisor telling his platoon point-blank, “The Geneva Conventions don’t exist at all in Iraq, and that’s in writing if you want to see it.”
The pivotal experience for Specialist Delgado came when, in the winter of 2003, he was assigned to battalion headquarters inside Abu Ghraib prison, where he worked with Maj. David DiNenna and Lieut. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, both implicated in the Taguba Report, the official Army investigation into the prison scandal. There, Delgado read reports on prisoners and updated a dry erase board with information on where in the large prison compound detainees were moved and held.
“That was when I totally walked away from the Army,” Specialist Delgado said. “I read these rap sheets on all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and what they were there for. I expected them to be terrorists, murderers, insurgents. I look down this roster and see petty theft, public drunkenness, forged coalition documents. These people are here for petty civilian crimes.”
“These aren’t terrorists,” he recalled thinking. “These aren’t our enemies. They’re just ordinary people, and we’re treating them this harshly.” Specialist Delgado ultimately applied for conscientious objector status, which the Army approved in April 2004.
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