Mopping Up

The ordeal of the New Yorkers sent to clean up the mess at Abu Ghraib

"We were supposed to be training for desert warfare, and it's 20 degrees in New Jersey," says Sgt. Rene LeClerc, a Harlem native and former paratrooper. "When you realize that the heart of the mission will be as correction officers, and you are all out in the woods somewhere knee-deep in the mud in what looks like jungle warfare training, it's like, 'What the fuck?' "

It also irked some soldiers that they were being trained to operate one of the most dangerous penal colonies in the world with manuals clearly based on quieter, stateside prison facilities.

Only a minority, meanwhile, had actually received detainee operations training. And many soldiers didn't get certified on some of the key weapons that would be used in the camps, like the shotgun that fired non-lethal rounds. Later, at Abu Ghraib, it became obvious this was a problem, because insufficient staffing forced soldiers trained as clerks, for example, to work in camps guarding detainees.


Abu Ghraib Scenes
Snapshots from the most dangerous prison in the world

Tune in: Talking with reporter Graham Rayman

"The training was a total waste of time," Guiliani says. "They trained us as if we were going to Fort Leavenworth. Abu Ghraib wasn't anything like Leavenworth. We didn't spend much time on the things that turned out to be important."

In the evenings, the unit retired to their dorms. Landis was impressed with the New Yorkers and their many uses for the word fuck. But he was astonished that so many soldiers still believed there were ties between Saddam and 9/11. President Bush himself had already acknowledged that wasn't the case.

Landis routinely tangled with Della Salla and other New Yorkers over war policy. "There were no weapons of mass destruction," Landis would say. "We've been lied to. Didn't you get the memo?"

To New Yorkers steeped in the lore of September 11, this was sacrilege. "He started with his Bush-bashing early on," Della Salla says. "I would be looking at him, ready to kill him."

As the training ground on, tension developed between the commanders and the sergeants. The discontent culminated that December in a meeting between the sergeants and a representative from the brigade command, who was peppered with complaints.

Della Salla, who was present at the meeting, asked his colleagues how many felt the unit was ready. Only one hand rose. The next day, Hussey told them, "If this was Survivor, I know I would be voted off the island."

In early January 2005, the 306th flew commercial jets to Kuwait, where they expected to get additional training. That didn't happen. Instead, they sat around for two weeks, and finally boarded planes for the brief flight into Baghdad International Airport, which included a gut-wrenching dive to avoid insurgent rockets. On the terrifying descent, some of the soldiers prayed.

The unit then rode flatbed trucks eight miles to the gates of Abu Ghraib, which took the soldiers by surprisemost of them had just 30 rounds of ammunition each, far less than the required combat load of more than 200 rounds. During the ride, a shaken soldier vomited on Della Salla's boots.

"Is this right?" the soldier screamed. "Is this right? Is this right?"

Abu Ghraib, a facility used by Saddam Hussein to imprison and torture supposed political enemies, was ringed by an 18-foot cement wall. One section held a hospital, cells converted to sleeping quarters for the soldiers, and support areas. A second section held the so-called "hard site," which after the 2004 scandal had been reserved for sentenced Iraqi prisoners and was run by Iraqis. The third area, under United States control, held 2,600 prisoners formally known as "detainees"housed in razor wireenclosed compounds.

The detainees were divided into five camps based on their perceived security risk. The lowest-risk, Level 1, housed 2,000 prisoners in tents in four large chaotic compounds. Detainees in Level 5, the most secure, lived solo in tiny cinder block huts.

From the day they arrived, the members of the 306th began working six-day weeks, 12 hours a day. The unit roster swelled with the addition of two field artillery units to be used as camp guards. But fewer than 70 soldiers out of the bulked-up roster of 350 were fully trained military police.

Rene LeClerc, meanwhile, the Harlem native who found New Jersey so cold, had been left behind in Kuwait. He was sent south to Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq, a sprawling prison base in the desert. The Army's need for a mechanic there was so great that they took a guy who hadn't turned a wrench in many years.

LeClerc soon became a regular on the convoys of tour buses and Humvees that transported human cargodetaineesbetween Bucca, Abu Ghraib, and Irbil, a third prison camp in northern Iraq. The convoys were attacked with some regularity. LeClerc began to think that he might finally get a combat infantry pin after all. "If you worried about getting killed, you would never leave the base," he says. "Basically, if you didn't get blown up, that was a good day."

Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, who was placed in charge of the Abu Ghraib office that processed prisoners in and out of the base, said there were days when more than 100 new prisoners reached the facility and another 100 were moved out to other facilities. In all, she estimates, 25,000 prisoners came through the camp in the first six months of the year.

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