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A Suicide in Iraq Part II
|Alyssa Peterson, 27, killed herself in Iraq after protesting "interrogation techniques."
Now another female soldier who met her a week before she died and who also objected to certain interrogations in Iraq comments.
By Greg Mitchell
(November 07, 2006) They served in the same battalion in Iraq at the same time. Kayla Williams spoke with Alyssa Peterson about the young woman's troubles a week before she died and afterward, attended her memorial service. Williams even has her own interrogation horror story to tell. So what, in Williams ' view, caused Alyssa Peterson to put a bullet in her head in September 2003 after just a few weeks in Iraq?
The death of Alyssa Peterson, 28 – a former Mormon missionary is first and foremost unspeakably sad, and what was fully in her mind will never be known, especially since her parents apparently knew little about her death until four days ago. But this tragic incident, which I explored in my previous column, also begs the question: What interrogation techniques drew her ire?
And were they of such a nature that this might explain why this young woman of faith and, reportedly, good nature, would suddenly turn a gun on herself?
The official Army investigation, we’re told by the radio reporter in Arizona who received the documents after an FOIA request, notes that all papers relating to the interrogations have been destroyed. But what do we know about what was going on in Iraq 2003, beyond credible claims that treatment of prisoners was being "Gitmo-ized”?
Perhaps the most specific testimony that may relate to Alyssa Peterson comes from another Arabic-speaking female U.S. soldier who also served in the 101st Airborne at that time in the same region of Iraq. She even wrote a book partly about it.
She is former Army sergeant Kayla Williams, author of the 2005 memoir, “Love My Rifle More Than You.” Much of the publicity about the book focused on her accounts of sexual tension or harassment in Iraq, but it also holds several key passages about interrogations.
In the book and in interviews at that time, Williams, now 29 and out of the Army, described how she had been recruited to briefly take part in over-the-line interrogations. Like Peterson, she protested torture techniques such as throwing lit cigarettes at prisoners and was quickly shifted away, but in her case, she survived. But she told me Friday that she is still haunted by the experience and wonders if she objected strongly enough. She also wonders if she could have done more to help Alyssa Peterson after their brief chat just before she died.
But what was Alyssa asked to do in the interrogation "cage" and why did she protest?
Williams and Peterson were both interpreters but only the latter was in "human intelligence," that is, trained to take part in interogations. They met by chance when Williams, who had been on a mission, came back to the base in Tal Afar in September 2003 before heading off again. A civilian interpreter asked her to speak to Peterson, who seemed troubled.
Like others, Williams found her to be a "sweet girl." Williams asked if she wanted to go to dinner, but Peterson was not free maybe next time, but of course, time ran out.
Their one conversation, Williams told me, centered on personal, not military problems, and it's hard to tell where it fit in the suicide timeline. According to records of an Army probe that were obtained by the radio reporter, Kevin Elston, Peterson had protested, and then asked out of, interrogations after just two days in what was known as "the cage" and killed herself shortly after that.
This might have all transpired just after her encounter with Williams, or it might have happened before and she did not mention it Williams was not then involved in interrogations and they did not really know each other.
Peterson's suicide on Sept. 15 reported to the press and public (to this day) in the usual vague way as death by "non-hostile gunshot" was the only fatality suffered by the battalion during their entire time in Iraq, Williams reports. At the memorial service everyone knew the cause of her death. They were surprised and "frustrated," she comments, since Peterson had only been in a Iraq a few weeks and many of them had been there six months, going back to the U.S. invasion, and had not cracked.
Shortly after that, Williams (a three-year Army vet at the time) was sent to the 2nd Brigade's Support Area in Mosul, and she described what happened next in her book. Brought into the "cage" there one day on a special mission, she saw fellow soldiers hitting a naked prisoner in the face. "It's one thing to make fun of someone and attempt to humiliate him. With words. That's one thing. But flicking lit cigarettes at somebody like burning him that's illegal," Williams writes in he book. Soldiers later told her that "the old rules no longer applied because this was a different world. This was a new kind of war."
Here's what she told Soledad O'Brien of CNN on Sept. 26 of this year:
"Actually, my job was not as an interrogator. So, I didn't know what their usual rules were. I was asked to assist. And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate. There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes. ….
"They stripped prisoners naked and then removed their blindfolds, so that I was the first thing they saw. And, then, we were supposed to mock them and degrade their manhood. And it really didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me. I didn't know if this was standard. But it did not seem to work. And it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren't behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave."
As soon as that day ended, after a couple of these sessions, she told a superior she would never do it again.
In another CNN interview, on Oct. 8, 2005, she explained:
"I sat through it at the time. But after it was over I did approach the non-commissioned officer in charge and told him I think you may be violating the Geneva Conventions. ... He said he knew and I said I wouldn't participate again and he respected that, but I was really, really stunned and struggled a lot with whether or not I should do anything about it because I don't know whether or not it's appropriate technique."
So, given all this, what does Williams think pushed Alyssa Peterson to shoot herself one week after their only meeting? The great unknown, of course, is what Peterson was asked to witness or do in interrogations. We do know that she refused to have anything more to do with that after two days or one day longer than it took for Williams to reach her breaking point.
Properly, Williams points out that it's rarely one factor that leads to suicide, and Peterson had some personal problems, to be sure. "It's always a bunch of things coming together to the point you feel so overwhelmed that there's no way out," Williams says. "I witnessed abuse, I felt uncomfortable with it, but I didn't kill myself, because I could see the bigger context.
"I felt a lot of angst about whether I had an obligation to report it, and had any way to report it. Was it classified? Who should I turn to?" Perhaps Alyssa Peterson felt in the same box.
"It also made me think," Williams says, "what are we as humans that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult and to this day, I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation." Such an experience might have been truly shattering to the deeply religious Peterson.
Referring to that day in Mosul, Williams says, "I realize when it came down to it, I did not have the moral fiber. I did protest but only to the person in charge and I did not file a report up the chain of command."
Yet, after recounting her experience In Mosul, she asks: "Can that lead to suicide? That's such an act of desperation, helplessness, it has to be more than that." She concludes, "In general, interrogation is not fun, even if you follow the rules. And I didn't see any good intelligence being gained. The other problem is that, in situations like that, you have people that are not terrorists being picked up, and being questioned. And, if you treat an innocent person like that, they walk out a terrorist."
Or, maybe in this case, if an innocent person witnesses such a thing, some may walk out as a likely suicide.
Kevin Elston, the Flagstaff, Arizona, radio journalist who broke the Peterson story based on military documetns received after FOIA requests did a report for his station KNAU this week. It contained the following passages.
"The investigative report states that a sergeant and team leader both 'detailed the aversion she had towards applying the interrogation methods to detainees.' Peterson's first sergeant, identified as James D. Hamilton, told investigators, 'It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them,' the report states....
"She avoided eating with her interrogation team and spent time reading at her desk when she did not have other assignments. No one in the unit reported signs of impending suicide.
"On the evening of Sept. 15, 2003, she got off work at about 9 p.m. and was not seen again that night. According to the documents, the company executive officer heard two gunshots at about 9:30 p.m. but did not investigate.
"At 9 the next morning, an aircraft passing over the nearby landing zone reported seeing Peterson's body in a grassy field next to her service rifle. Documents disclosed that she had two gunshot wounds her weapon apparently had been set on burst beneath her chin."
Elston was then interviewed by Amy Goodman of the national radio/TV program "Democracy Now." An excerpt:
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Alyssa’s story, how she came to be in the military.
KEVIN ELSTON: Yeah, she got a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on an ROTC scholarship and then fulfilled her obligation by attending the interrogation school at Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona. She spent a year at, I think it was, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in Arabic language school, before they sent her over there. She was in country for three weeks before she killed herself.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the documents that you were able to get.
KEVIN ELSTON: I got a copy of the death investigation. I got a copy of the criminal investigation and some excerpts from the autopsy. I didn't get the full autopsy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her family and what her family understood?
KEVIN ELSTON: Her family didn't really want to know how she died, for their own reasons. I think they suspected that it was a suicide. I talked to her brother the other day, and he said that he suspected it was a suicide, but they all decided that they didn't want to know the details.
AMY GOODMAN: She was an Arabic-speaking interrogator who was trained at Fort Huachuca?
KEVIN ELSTON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what further information do you have about how she went from there to Iraq, and then exactly what she was doing in Iraq?
KEVIN ELSTON: She was in the I think it was called the 110th Intelligence Battalion. It's part of the 101st Airborne Division. Like I say, she did train in Arabic in Kentucky, and then they sent her over there. She was in country for two days before she did her first interrogation. Her second interrogation was the day after that. The day after that, she attended suicide prevention training and requested to be transferred. She said that she could not carry out the interrogation techniques that they were using in the cage, which is what they called the interrogation unit at the Tal Afar Air Base, where she was assigned, and then she was reassigned to the gate, where she interviewed Iraqi workers and monitored Iraqi guards for what they thought might be duplicitous behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: And is there any suggestion that she might have been killed by anyone else, or is it quite clear that she committed suicide at this point?
KEVIN ELSTON: The military investigation concluded that she committed suicide. My understanding is that there was a suicide note found on her body, but I was unable to obtain a copy of that.
Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P.
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