Mopping Up

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

video: The assault was regarded as one of the more sophisticated attacks on a U.S. base of the war. Ultimately, the attack failed, but dozens of U.S. troops and detainees were wounded.
A total of 43 soldiers and 16 detainees were woundedsome seriously, records show. Search teams, according to Berry, recovered the bodies of three insurgents, and learned that many others had sought care at local hospitals. A total of 78 mortars and rockets and countless bullets had been fired at the base.

"They removed their own casualties," a sergeant says of the insurgents. "To me, that demonstrates a highly disciplined force."

Officially, the number of insurgents involved was 40 to 60, but in his article, Berry estimated the total to be more than 60. Some soldiers involved in the battle believe the true number to be more than 100.


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"After April 2, our guys woke up and realized there's an enemy out there who wants to hurt us," Hussey says.

The insurgents had thrown rockets, mortars, truck bombs, and bullets at the Abu Ghraib wall. They had shut down approach roads and grounded air cover. They had slipped close enough to attack the base on three sides with AK-47s. And even with all of that, they hardly made a dent.

Then, about a month later, a desert windstorm came along and knocked over a long section of that outer wall. In the end, nature had done what the insurgents could not.

That June, the ranks of the 306th swelled with the addition of Josh Bingham and his National Guard unit from Kentucky coal country. Bingham's unit and others were sent to Abu Ghraib to provide more guards for the swelling prison population, which was growing toward 5,000. By then, the 306th had grown from 174 soldiers to more than 700.

Bingham was 22 years old and married with an infant daughter. He worked as a prison guard in a private, for-profit jail near his hometown of Booneville, a community nearly two hours from the nearest interstate.

For more than a year before they left for Iraq, Bingham and his comrades had trained out of their depot in Jackson, Kentucky, to contain chemical spills and the effects of biological weapons. Then, abruptly, the Pentagon sent them to Fort Dix for military police training. Three months later, they left for Iraq.

"Basically, we had a crash course in detainee operations and then they sent us over," Bingham says.

When they arrived in Iraq, the unit immediately began riding security on convoys. Over the next four months, Bingham rode with teams carrying fuel, food, ice, ammunition, and supplies for base stores. Insurgents hit those convoys dozens of times. On one trip, a soldier from the unit lost an eye.

"For the first month, it was OK," he says. "Then it felt like we were getting hit every time we went out."

The worst moment came that May. Bingham was driving when a roadside bomb exploded and struck the passenger side of his Humvee. Asphalt slammed into the throat of the man in the .50-caliber machine gun turret, opening a wide gash. He slumped through the turret, into the cab. Blood poured from the wound. The Humvee caught fire.

Bingham's comrade returned to duty within a few weeks, but Bingham never fully healed from the trauma of that attack. It wasn't the driver's job to watch for roadside bombs, but Bingham still felt he had failed his friend in not spotting the bomb before it exploded.

"We were so close, it just hurt for him to get hit," Bingham says.

Reeling from weeks of roadside attacks, Bingham's unit was nevertheless sent on to Abu Ghraib, the very place where prisoners accused of setting roadside bombs were held.

"We were mad that our government thought we'd be better off watching the guys who did the bombing," Bingham says.

Three weeks into the assignment, Bingham walked over to the Combat Stress tent and told someone there that he was finished watching prisoners. He was so angry that he thought he might shoot a prisoner just to take revenge. He was promptly transferred to the repair unit.

"I was afraid I was going to do something to them," he says. "The repair unit was good because at the end of the day, unlike the camps, you actually felt like you had accomplished something."

Even though he was away from the prisoners, Bingham would find that he could not quite shake that roadside bombing.

Along with the heat, another simmering pressure that threatened to boil over as the summer progressed was the rising tension between Hussey and his closest advisors and many of the sergeants in the unit.

Hussey continued with his zero-tolerance policies, formally disciplining soldiers for what they thought were minor infractions. By the middle of the summer, resentment over Hussey's reign had moved some soldiers into quiet rebellion. A number of soldiers sent complaints to the Inspector General of the Army. The first complaints were filed while the unit was still at Fort Dix, but they picked up momentum at Abu Ghraib. Some sergeants even took their complaints to investigators at Dix when they got back from Iraq.

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