Yesterday, I posted a piece here that drew wide attention around the Web perhaps because of its tragic relevance to the current torture debate: The story of Spc. Alyssa Peterson, who committed suicide in September 2003 a few days after refusing to take part in interrogations that likely involved torture.
The piece has drawn more than 200 comments here, including one from Alyssa's older brother, supporting the essence of my piece (I first wrote about Alyssa almost three years ago). I'll return to that comment over the weekend.
Yesterday I promised a Part II, relating to a soldier who served with Alyssa. That woman, Kayla Williams, has posted here in the past, on a different subject.
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 Iraq 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? And why were the press and the public not told about it?
The death of Alyssa Peterson is unspeakably sad, and what was fully in her mind will never be known, especially since her parents apparently knew little about her death until years after it happened. The press, which has rarely challenged the official version of Iraq fatalities, has not probed the incident, to this day (although it is featured in two chapters in my book on Iraq and the media), and crucial pieces of evidence have been redacted. But this tragedy also begs the question: Which interrogation techniques drew her ire?
And were they of such a nature that this might explain why this young woman of Mormon faith and, reportedly, good nature would suddenly turn a gun on herself?
The official Army investigation notes that all papers relating to the interrogations have been destroyed -- but confirms that she was extremely unnerved by them and asked to be excused. What do we know about what was going on in Iraq in 2003, beyond credible claims -- especially after the release of the torture memos and Senate committee report -- 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. This is former Army sergeant Williams, author of the 2005 memoir, Love My Rifle More Than You. Much of the media 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, Williams, now 32 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 she told me that she is still haunted by the experience and wonders if she objected strongly enough.
Williams and Peterson were both interpreters -- but only the latter was in "human intelligence," that is, trained to take part in interrogations. 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 two years ago, centered on personal, not military, problems, and it's hard to tell where it fit in the suicide timeline. According to records of the Army probe, Peterson had protested, and 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 -- they did not really know each other.
Peterson's suicide on Sept. 15 -- reported to the press and public as death by "non-hostile gunshot," usually meaning an accident -- 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.
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" 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. 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: "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. . . ."
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 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 there, 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.
Greg Mitchell's 2008 book on Iraq and the media, with a number of chapters on soldier suicides, was "So Wrong for So Long." His latest book is "Why Obama Won." He is editor of Editor & Publisher and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org