Mopping Up

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

Early on, the 306th commanders adopted a slogan they posted around the prison: "Winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, one detainee at a time."

Hussey, the unit commander, insists that many detainees came to respect Americans more as a result of their detention. In his essay, he tells the story of one prisoner who arrived at the camp hating Americans, but as a result of his treatment, "the fire in his belly is out."

Hussey was also skeptical of prisoners' claims of innocence. "I would look over these files, and the vast majority of these people did something," he said. "If you're a passenger in a car with other occupants and the cop discovers a kilo of cocaine, the cop is going to arrest all the occupants unless he can determine who the cocaine belongs to."


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But many soldiers doubted the detainee system was winning any "hearts and minds." One of those was Michael Landis. In his job as a repairman, Landis was able to speak at length with many detainees. "When we first got there, I would ask, 'What do you think of George Bush?' and a lot of them were still positive about him," he says. "By the summer, that had completely flipped. The same guys were saying, 'You Americans have to go. You've been here too long.' There was real bitterness."

Landis's roommate at Abu Ghraib, Sgt. First Class Jeffrey Barker, a veteran of the First Gulf War, put it this way: "The biggest mistake we made was using Abu Ghraib." Barker is a mechanical engineer who now lives in rural Tennessee. "It already had such a bad reputation. If someone was wrongly picked up in a sweep, that experience would have pushed them the wrong way."

Guiliani always believed that the 2004 scandal never amounted to more than the misbehavior of eight people. But even he believes that the overall detainee system only caused more animosity among Iraqis.

"I think what happened at Abu Ghraib when we were there, and when previous soldiers were there, did more harm than good," Guiliani says. "Yeah, you got them off the streets, but you had a lot of innocent people in there, and then you turned them into enemies of the United States."

After 11 months at the prison, the 306th finally departed the place on November 23, 2005, the day before Thanksgiving. There were some handshakes before they boarded Chinook helicopters bound for Kuwait, but no speeches. Behind them, other soldiers lined up at the mess hall, business as usual. The unit spent a few days in Kuwait, and then enjoyed an 18-hour journey back to the United States.

In early December 2005, the unit gathered whole for one last time in the gym at Fort Dix. After that, it was all paperwork, and the men and women of the 306th dispersed to the four corners of the country.

Many of them wear bracelets in memory of James McNaughton.

Not long after his return, Jeffrey Barker was Christmas shopping. After leaving Wal-Mart because he still wasn't comfortable being around so many people, the mild-mannered Barker blew his stack when another motorist cut him off in the parking lot. "You spend a year constantly on alert, you can't just turn it off when you get home," he says.

Louis Guiliani finally got his Combat Action Badge, but he received it without ceremony in the parking lot at Fort Dix. "A major hands it to me and says, 'Here, congratulations,' " Guiliani recalled. "No ceremony, nothing."

Guiliani took a deep breath and a couple weeks off at home in Kew Gardens, and went back to work as a carpenter with the city. For months, he says he grew cautious every time he saw a person with Middle Eastern features. That tension has largely abated, he says. But there's a chance he might be deployed for a third time in this war.

"It could happen, but my wife is kind of tired of the war," says Guiliani. "She's hoping I don't have to go again."

Rene LeClerc, meanwhile, came back to his place in Manhattan, and tried to shake off the effect of all of those convoys. "In Iraq, we were the kings of the road," he says. "No one passed us. Here, I'm not used to people passing me."

LeClerc has yet to return to work. He spends his time buying and rehabbing rare bicycles, and taking long solo rides. As for the Combat Infantry Badge, LeClerc did receive it. The award seemed fitting: After all, he had done some 200 convoys.

Then, eight days later, the Army took the award away from him. The reason, he says, was that he was never officially assigned to an infantry unit, even though he was in combat. "Well, at least I had it for a little while," he says with a shrug.

Michael Landis came home to El Paso and immediately left for California to bury his mother. She died in a nursing home on the same night she learned he was leaving Iraq.

In August 2006, he finally reached the end of his military contract, and he sat down and tapped out a letter of resignation from the Army after a career spanning 21 years.

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