With each revelation, or court decision, on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo -- or the airing this month of The Tillman Story and Lawrence Wright's My Trip to Al-Qaeda -- I am reminded of the chilling story of Alyssa Peterson, who died seven years ago today. Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what most would call torture, she refused, then killed herself a few days later, on September 15, 2003.
Of course, we now know from the torture memos and the US Senate committee probe and various press reports, that the "Gitmo-izing" of Iraq was happening just at the time Alyssa got swept up in it.
Spc. Alyssa Peterson was one of the first female soldiers who died in Iraq. Her death under these circumstances should have drawn wide attention. It's not exactly the Tillman case, but a cover-up, naturally, followed.
Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native, served with C Company, 311th Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne. She was a valuable Arabic-speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at our air base in troubled Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq. According to official records, she died on September 15, 2003, from a "non-hostile weapons discharge."
A "non-hostile weapons discharge" leading to death is not unusual in Iraq, often quite accidental, so this one apparently raised few eyebrows. The Arizona Republic, three days after her death, reported that Army officials "said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian." And that might have ended it right there.
But in this case, a longtime radio and newspaper reporter named Kevin Elston, not satisfied with the public story, decided to probe deeper in 2005, "just on a hunch," he told me in late 2006. He made "hundreds of phone calls" to the military and couldn't get anywhere, so he filed a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request. When the documents of the official investigation of her death arrived, they contained bombshell revelations.
Here's what the Flagstaff public radio station, KNAU, where Elston worked, reported:
"Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed."
The official probe of her death would later note that earlier she had been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of the report, in fact, is this: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."
She was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards, and sent to suicide prevention training. "But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle," the documents disclose.
The official report revealed that a notebook she had written in was found next to her body, but blacked out its contents.
The Army talked to some of Peterson's colleagues. Asked to summarize their comments, Elston told me: "The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were." In one document, Peterson's first sergeant recalls: "It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them."
Elston said that the documents also refer to a suicide note found on her body, which suggested that she found it ironic that suicide prevention training had taught her how to commit suicide. He filed another FOIA request for a copy of the actual note. It did not emerge.
Peterson, a devout Mormon--her mother, Bobbi, claims she always stuck up for "the underdog"--had graduated from Flagstaff High School and earned a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military scholarship. She was trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and was sent to the Middle East in 2003, reportedly going in place of another soldier who did not wish to go.
A report in The Arizona Daily Sun of Flagstaff--three years after Alyssa's death--revealed that Spc. Peterson's mother, reached at her home in northern Arizona, said that neither she nor her husband Richard had received any official documents that contained information outlined in Elston's report.
In other words: Like the press and the public, even the parents had been kept in the dark.
Kayla Williams, an Army sergeant who served with Alyssa, told me me that she talked to her about her problems shortly before she killed herself. Williams also was forced to take part in torture interrogations, where she saw detainees punched. Another favorite technique: strip the prisoners and then remove their blindfolds so that the first thing they saw was Kayla Williams.
She also opted out, but survived, and is haunted years later. She wrote a book about her experience in the military, Love My Rifle More Than You.
Here's what Williams 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."
When I wrote a piece about Peterson last year, her brother, Spencer Peterson, left a comment:
Alyssa is my little sister. I usually don't comment on boards like this, and I don't speak for the rest of my family (especially my folks), but I think she probably did kill herself over this. She was extremely sensitive and empathetic to others, and cared a lot more about the welfare and well-being of the people around her than she cared about herself.... Thank you to everyone for your continued support of our troops and our family. Alyssa's death was a tremendous loss to everyone who knew her, and we miss her sweet and sensitive spirit. No one is happier than I am that (many of) our troops are coming home from Iraq, and I pray that the rest of our brave soldiers return home safely as soon as possible. Support our troops--bring them home!
Kayla Williams told me me she spoke with Alyssa Peterson about the young woman's troubles a week before she died--and afterward, attended her memorial service.
So what 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? Because Alyssa's suicide note and contents from her journal have not been released, we can't say for certain how to weigh the factors that led to her death.
Chelsea Russell, who studied Arabic with Peterson at a military facility in Monterrey, California, told me that she found Alyssa to be an especially "sincere and kind person" but she had come to question her Mormon faith a few months before getting shipped to Iraq. "I believe that Alyssa was at a crossroads at the time of her death," Russell added. " I don't know if she had strong emotional support in Iraq. Questioning her own religious beliefs, her military colleagues, and her part in the war may have been too much for her."
While Kayla Williams managed to escape the torture machine, she told me that she is still haunted by the experience and wonders if she objected strongly enough. (Here is background on U.S. soldier convicted of homicide for an incident in Iraq in November 2003. A video that opens with the Peterson case here. )
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, she said, but then 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 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 at that time--they did not really know each other.
Peterson's suicide on September 15, 2003--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:
"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, 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 (left) points out that it's rarely one factor that leads to suicide, and Peterson had some personal problems. "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 Peterson, a once-devout Mormon.
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.