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How prisoner abuse affects the abuser

Photo: AP Photo/Khampha Bouaphanh, Pool

After returning from Iraq in 2004, Sergeant Adam Gray tearfully confessed to his mother that he had abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners. Soon after, the 24-year-old soldier was found dead in his barracks at an Army base in Alaska, a plastic bag around his neck and a can of Dust-off beside him. The Army ruled Gray’s death as “accidental.”

In his new book “None of Us Were Like This Before,” reporter Joshua Phillips investigates the death of Sergeant Adam Gray. In the process of his investigation, he meets other members of Gray’s Battalion 1-68, who also admit to abusing and torturing detainees, and have suffered severe psychological issues on their return to the United States. Phillips also travels to Afghanistan, Syria and Jordan to speak with former detainees who had been abused while in U.S. custody.

Need to Know’s Lucy Kennedy asked Phillips about his experiences reporting this difficult story.

Lucy Kennedy: What prompted you to write this story?

Joshua Phillips: I first learned about this story when I was researching some of the problems that troops faced when trying to report detainee abuse to their superiors. One of the soldiers in Sergeant Adam Gray’s unit, Jonathan Millantz, told me how he and his unit members became involved in detainee abuse and torture, and thought it had greatly distressed Gray. In fact, Millantz believed that Gray was so upset over the detainee abuse (and other incidents) that it drove him to engage in self-destructive behavior. Over time, I realized that Millantz was also traumatized by the same experience, and was likewise engaging in similar self-destructive behavior.

I learned that Gray’s mother, Cindy Chavez, was trying to make sense of what happened to her son, and his heartbreaking demise. As I pieced together what happened to Adam Gray, I began to realize that his story not only typified how many U.S. forces turned to detainee abuse and torture, but it also exposed a tragic dimension of prisoner abuse that hadn’t been examined in the media. The more I reported on the story, the more I realized how gravely damaging detainee abuse had been for young American soldiers.

Kennedy: How did you manage to get soldiers to speak to you openly and on the record about abusing prisoners?

Phillips: It took an enormous amount of time to develop relationships with soldiers and build trust with them so that they would feel comfortable discussing sensitive experiences, some of which were quite upsetting and painful. Over time, many of the soldiers I talked to gradually recognized that I wasn’t doing a hatchet job on the military or their unit. I was genuinely trying to understand what happened to the members of Adam Gray’s tanking unit (Battalion 1-68). Like Gray, other members of this unit referenced their experiences with detainees as being especially traumatic. For certain soldiers, discussing what occurred in Iraq and during their return home was a way of unburdening the grief they had pent up.

Kennedy: One of the people you spent a lot of time with was Cindy Chavez, Adam Gray’s mother. How did she respond when her son finally broke down and told her about some of the detainee abuses he had committed in Iraq?

Phillips: It seemed clear to Cindy Chavez that her son was upset by certain events in Iraq – that was evident when he returned home after his tour. But she was very careful not to prod him too much about it in order to provide him with enough time and space to unwind after his tour. Cindy was upset to hear what had occurred in Iraq when her son finally opened up to her. Adam wasn’t only distraught about the detainee abuse – he and his fellow tankers were also part of an accidental shooting incident that claimed innocent lives. He told his mother how much the shooting disturbed him, and it was likewise distressing for Cindy to hear her son describe it.

As for the detainee abuse, Adam told his mother that it was fairly pervasive, and that he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to rough up prisoners to help collect intelligence. Some soldiers have corroborated this; others have admitted to abusing detainees for additional reasons, too. The book relays Cindy’s response to the abuse, which developed over time as she learned more about what happened to her son and his fellow soldiers. She was sympathetic to wartime circumstances that her son and his fellow troops faced in Iraq. Cindy was also sympathetic to the Iraqi prisoners, and recognized that they were also someone’s children, and that one should not mistreat or torture people.

So, she felt a complex range of emotions when her son first told her about the abuse. As she learned that others in his unit were involved in detainee abuses, and were traumatized as a result of those experiences, she felt even more sadness, and even anger, for what her son and other soldiers went through. And I think those feelings grew when she understood how it made it harder for them to re-adjust to coming back home and trying to live normal lives.

Kennedy: You traveled to a number of places including Syria, Jordan and Afghanistan, interviewing people who were tortured while in U.S. custody. As an American reporter, were they suspicious of you?

Phillips: I had a number of experiences in Syria and Afghanistan where human rights workers, former detainees and even local journalists were initially suspicious of me and questioned my motives. Some openly said they thought it was strange that an American journalist would travel to dangerous parts of the world to report on American detainee abuse and torture. In Afghanistan and the Middle East, some victims didn’t meet with me because they feared that my reporting could possibly get them into trouble. Some former detainees wouldn’t show up for interviews because they didn’t want to revisit painful experiences.

In 2005, I traveled to the Middle East to interview detainees who had been held in American facilities in Iraq. During that time, Iraq was engulfed in violence and it seemed easier and safer (for me and the victims) to meet in Syria and Jordan. After months of reporting in Syria, the police grew suspicious of me, and started questioning my sources and colleagues about my work. Eventually, the government’s interference made it impossible for me to work there, and I had to leave the country.

Has anyone been censured for the torture carried out by some of the members of Battalion 1-68?

My colleagues and I contacted the Army nearly a dozen times and asked whether they investigated reports of abuse by troops from Battalion 1-68. The Army never responded. I also interviewed Battalion 1-68’s operations and intelligence officers, and neither of them said they were aware of detainee abuse or torture by troops under their command — nor were they aware of any investigation that was conducted about those allegations. So, as far as I know, no one in Battalion 1-68 has been censured or investigated for detainee abuse during 2003-2004.