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If you ask some of the members of his military unit, Sgt. James McNaughton, the only New York City police officer killed in Iraq, should never have been put on the assignment that ultimately resulted in his death.
Since he was killed in August 2005, McNaughton has become a celebrated, iconic figure in New York. His name graces streets and buildings, and he is invoked by politicians and military leaders for his heroism and sacrifice. Just last week, McNaughton's name was added to a new plaque honoring city police officers who have died in combat.
But McNaughton's death was symbolic in other ways as well. A Manhattan subway cop from Centereach, Long Island, McNaughton had been a cadet in the first police class to graduate after the 9/11 attacks. And after the 2004 scandal at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison that introduced the world to photos of naked Iraqi prisoners, barking dogs, and Lynndie England holding a leash, he was part of the New Yorkbased 306th Military Police Battalion, a hastily assembled unit of raw and aging reservists given limited training and shipped to the most dangerous prison in the world while being told repeatedly that they were being sent to "restore America's honor."
Except for McNaughton's death, however, almost nothing about the hellish 11 months the unit spent at Abu Ghraib has been reported. While they were there, the 306th dealt with a prison population that doubled, dodged repeated rocket and mortar attacks, and survived a multi-pronged frontal assault on the prison considered one of the most complex insurgent operations of the war. But that battle went largely ignored stateside.
McNaughton served at the prison for six months until he agreed to take on a mission which separated him from the rest of the unit. One soldier, Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, tells the Voice that McNaughton expressed reservations about the assignment because it meant leaving the squad he'd been leading in order to train Iraqi police officers. Other soldiers say McNaughton was simply ambivalent about the task, and some say he was looking forward to getting out of the camp. McNaughton's former commander and his family emphasize that he volunteered for the mission.
Louis Natale, 44, a police officer from Long Island and one of McNaughton's closest friends in the unit, says that McNaughton agreed to the mission after another police officer had declined. Well aware that the assignment was risky, McNaughton told Natale that he didn't feel pushed into it, but believed he had to take the mission to protect his fellow police officers who had children at home.
About a month after he left the prison, on August 2, McNaughton climbed to the viewing platform of a guard tower along a highway. As he stood in the tower, a sniper's bullet, fired from about 300 meters, found the small space between his helmet and his body armor, ripping through his neck. He died at a hospital several hours later.
The 26-year-old was the first member of the 306th to die in Iraq, as well as the only NYPD fatality of the war to date. The city paid for a funeral, attended by several members of the 306th in addition to hundreds of police officers and other New Yorkers.
Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, some members of his unit were furious. McNaughton, they felt, should never have been sent on the mission, which had nothing to do with the reason the 306th was sent to Iraq.
"We were just supposed to be there to do detainee operations, and plus, we were short-handed," says Sgt. First Class Louis Guiliani, 48, of Kew Gardens, a 31-year military veteran who has served two tours in Iraq. "So it didn't make any sense to me that they would ask Jimmy to go do that job."
Now back home, Guiliani and other former members of the 306th are reconsidering the mission and the war, something that became clear in interviews with two dozen former soldiers of the 306th that took place over several months. And here, for the first time, is the story of the New Yorkers that the U.S. sent to Iraq to make things right, who ultimately found that so much was wrong.
In the spring of 2004, with photos from Abu Ghraib dominating the news, a small group of soldiers in Uniondale at the offices of the 306th pored over a unit roster of reservists, looking for 174 suitable candidates to send to Iraq.
It proved a difficult task. Some of the soldiers on the list were simply not physically or mentally fit for a tour of one of the most stressful locations in Iraq. Others had already burned up the time they owed the military with post-9/11 assignments inside the U.S. And several dozen of the people on the list refused to voluntarily waive the limits on their deployment. They just didn't want to go.
At least two potential candidates filed federal lawsuits to prevent the Army from scooping them up from civilian life to join the mission. One was a Brooklyn doctor who claimed his clinic serving the indigent would fail without him. The second was a National Guard captain who believed he had finished serving out his eight-year military commitment in June 2004. He claimed that the Pentagon was subjecting him to "involuntary servitude," and a federal judge agreed with him. He would not have to go to Iraq.