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.
Others had no choice. Among them was Sgt. Gerald Della Salla, 35, an actor living on the Upper West Side, who admits to being swept up in the patriotic fervor that followed the 9/11 terror attacks. Della Salla picked up the phone one day in 2004 and heard the familiar, gruff voice of a motor pool sergeant.
Sgt. Gerald Della Salla, of Manhattan, and Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein (pictured), of Commack, Long Island, were among the force of New Yorkers sent to restore Americas honor who found the job harder than anticipated. Della Salla, concerned about Pentagon prosecutions of soldiers speaking out about the war, asked that all insignia from their uniforms be obscured.
photo: Scott McDermott
“Yammy, is that you?” Della Salla asked.
“Just be quiet and let me read this,” the voice said, launching into a prepared text. Della Salla suppressed a chuckle.
Duly notified, Della Salla couldn’t quite bring himself to tell his girlfriend for a couple of weeks. “I kind of blurted it out in the middle of the night,” he tells the Voice. “She kind of started crying. Our dog Luke left the room.”
But the 306th still had a major troop shortage. The Uniondale group turned to the computers of the Atlanta-based Army Reserve Command. Those computers in turn spat out the names of hundreds of soldiers elsewhere in the U.S. who, on paper at least, were deployable.
And so, in houses across the country, telephones began to ring. One call went to a 44-year-old, marginally fit civil engineer named Michael Landis with four children in El Paso, Texas.
“Are you sitting down?” the caller asked. Landis was actually about to eat dinner. Landis listened and hung up. When his wife asked about the call, Landis says he told her, in a deadpan voice, “It was the Army: I’m going to Abu Ghraib.” Then he asked her to pass the bread.
At the time, Landis had less than a year left in his military service. “It was so out of the blue that it didn’t register until after dinner,” he says. “And then I called a buddy and told him, if Donny Rumsfeld needs Mike Landis, father of four at the age of 44, to fight the war in Iraq, we’ve already lost this thing.”
In all, more than half of the roster were pulled out of their home units and transferred across the country to the unfamiliar 306th. Because most soldiers prefer to go into combat with a unit they have trained with for a long period of time, the situation was less than ideal.
“I didn’t meet a lot of the people until we reached Dix,” says the unit commander, Lt. Col. John Hussey. “It wasn’t conducive, but that’s what we had. You had to get on with it.”
In early October 2004, the 174 members of the reconstituted 306th gathered inside the cavernous Nassau Coliseum for a somewhat surreal send-off that included a performance by two women and a man in red, white, and blue rhinestone costumes. The unit then boarded buses for the ride to Fort Dix, the sprawling military base in south Jersey, where they underwent almost three months of training.
Della Salla, the actor, and Landis, the civil engineer, were joined by soldiers from a range of civilian careers. Among them, Sgt. Louis Guiliani, 46, was a carpenter from Kew Gardens who worked in the city’s public housing projects. He was on his second deployment of the war.
Staff Sgt. McNaughton was a second-generation city cop from Long Island who patrolled the subways. Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein was a Suffolk County housewife with two kids and a long military career.
The unit commander, Lt. Col. John Hussey, was a self-described “BIC” (Bronx Irish Catholic) who worked as chief clerk in the Rockland County courthouse, and had prior deployments to Bosnia and the first Gulf War.
It was Hussey who told the unit, in his speeches, that the 306th were “guardians of freedom,” and that it was their job to “restore America’s honor.” The work they did in Iraq, he told them, would protect Americans from further terrorist attacks on home soil. For the younger soldiers, the speeches were motivators. Some of the older vets, though, thought the link to 9/11 was a bit overdone.
Hussey not only had to keep an eye on thousands of prisoners, his bosses made it clear that he had better not allow another scandal on his watch. “I lost a lot of sleep over it,” he says. “I don’t think the soldiers realized the wrath that would come down on them if they made a mistake.”
To Hussey, the 2004 abuses had occurred because higher-ups weren’t keeping better watch on their soldiers. On his command, he decided, no one would get away with even the most minor of infractions. That way, those small problems couldn’t grow into major ones. But Hussey’s nitpicky, hard-assed approach would come to infuriate the men and women who worked for him.
As the days passed, soldiers prepared for a year in the desert by moving from mind-numbingly long PowerPoint lectures to drills in the wet, freezing Jersey countryside.
“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.
“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.
Sgt. First Class Louis Guiliani: I think what happened at Abu Ghraib when
The place stank of burning garbage, gunpowder, and heavy chemicals. “It felt like we were entering hell,” says Staff Sgt. Christopher Manzolillo, 29, of Wantagh. “Abu Ghraib has a unique smell to itlike death, really. There’s nothing else in the world that smells like that. You never forget it.”
The place also had a palpable spookiness. There were hooks in the ceilings of most of the cells where the soldiers lived. Strange reddish blotches stained the walls and floors. The buildings seemed to groan and creak with a ghostly presence. And every evening, as the failing sun glowed in hues of orange and red, thousands of bats issued from some secret fissure in the walls and erupted across the sky.
“Right now, I am sitting here writing this and looking around the old lead paintinfested walls of this horrible place and asking myself if I did the right thing,” Gerald Della Salla wrote in his daily journal. “This is going to be such a long year . . . I can feel it.”
Another soldier says that “feelings about the mission ran from Rumsfeld talking points to ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ ”
Because the camps were built on a landfill, the very ground seemed to resist their presence. The sand itself extruded garbage, steel shards, shattered glass, and bone. At one point, a hole dug in the ground quickly pooled with fetid water, used syringes, and medical waste from some prior horror.
Rockets and mortars fell into the base every few days. The vast majority missed their targets, but the possibility of random death created a constant, unrelenting tension in the minds of the soldiers.
At least the soldiers, however, had helmets and Kevlar vests, and slept in concrete buildings. The prisoners, on the other hand, lived in canvas tents. Arguably, this arrangement was a violation of Article 23 of the Geneva Conventions, which states, “No prisoner of war may at any time be sent to, or be detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone.”
The danger came home one day when a mortar shell exploded in Level 1, striking three prisoners and nearly severing one man’s leg. A fist-sized piece of shrapnel spiraled off at a hard angle and seriously wounded a fourth detainee in an adjacent camp. He later died. A second piece struck a fifth detainee in the neck two camps over. He was saved only by the towel wrapped around his neck.
Incredibly, none of the half-dozen soldiers standing closest to the impact point were wounded. It was pure luck. “Not one soldier got any joy out of that day,” says Sgt. Kathleen Bogart, a Florida police officer. “It could have been me or anyone else. We were in prison just like them.”
Officially, Abu Ghraib’s main camp had been dubbed Redemption, one of the many strange allusions to 9/11 that the military attached to the prison. A smaller camp was called Liberty. Later, they would build a new camp called Remembrance, and create a shrine to the victims of the terror attacks.
But whatever the name, the camp layout was a major problem for the guards. In Level 1, for instance, there were 2,000 prisoners crammed into four compounds of 500 prisoners each, and only 10 guards per shift on the ground, says Guiliani, who oversaw two of those compounds.
“At any time, if they wanted to, the detainees could have taken down the fences and killed everyone before you got help there,” he says. “If it was me, I would have doubled the number of guards, at least.”
Each compound was run by a chief or an “imam” that soldiers routinely gave nicknames like “White Colonel” or “Snake” and who met weekly with 306th commanders. Some of the chiefs even had security squads, who periodically handed out beatings to other prisoners. In at least one case, an inmate was murdered by other detainees. Shortly after one evening head count in August, a 20-year-old prisoner was found hanged in a shower stall, his hands bound in front. Like a lot of things at the prison, the incident never made the newspapers.
Other prisoners impressed the soldiers with their ability to adapt to their environment. They turned bits of wire into heating coils. They fashioned bits of steel into weapons. They used hand signals and notes tied to rocks to communicate with other camps. They even tailored gloves and coats that would allow them to grip razor wire and fashioned rope ladders to scale the walls.
Even though Abu Ghraib was staffed with hundreds of troops and ringed with concrete walls and layers of razor wire, the place still experienced at least three successful escapes, and many more failed attempts.
In some cases, the escapees got away because of inattentiveness by tower guards. In others, the prisoners used the cover of night or a sandstorm to hide their departure. Abu Ghraib vets often chuckle about the night that three menone mostly blind, one lame, and one very oldsomehow found their way through two layers of wire and over the 18-foot wall without being discovered.
But a small group of young men in one camp hit on the most ingenious escape plan. In the corner of their tent, they began to dig a tunnel. They attached a homemade tube made from tent lining to the air conditioner and pumped air into the hole. The digger worked at night in a hole which was about the width of a large dinner plate. They carefully spread the excess dirt around the yard, and kept a bowl of water for the digger to wash himself when he finished each night. By the time it was discovered and collapsed with a backhoe, the wormhole ran about 30 feet. It was destroyed before the diggers were able to use it to escape.
When detainees rioted, the soldiers were under orders to stop the disturbance before it spread to other parts of the camp. They used rifles and shotguns which fired non-lethal bullets, grenades which spewed rubber balls, and flash-bang devices. The unit also had a special team equipped with Plexiglas shields and long batons who would enter a camp to subdue and arrest prisoners.
In quelling a riot, the soldiers were instructed to keep firing until the threat stopped, which often meant that the rioting group was peppered with a large volume of the painful rounds. “The non-lethal rounds were fired with impunity,” Landis recalls.
On October 15, 2005, the day that Iraqis voted to approve a new constitution, the men in one camp rioted in an effort to stop other prisoners from going to the polls, some of which were set up inside the prison. The guards responded with rubber bullets. “[The detainees] just went ballistic,” Guiliani says. “They didn’t want anyone to vote; they thought the election was fixed.”
Prisoners made complaints about soldiers verbally abusing them or pointing their weapons at them. But soldiers grumbled, too: They didn’t like that some detainee tents were outfitted with big-screen televisions and VCRs.
“After guarding detainees for several months in full battle gear in 120-degree temperatures, I knew there would be some burnout,” Hussey wrote in an essay published in a military police journal. “It is difficult for young soldiers because the same detainees that they care for are the same detainees who pelt them with rocks in the middle of the night.”
But Hussey and other members of the 306th insist there was no physical abuse of the prisoners. According to Rubenstein, the guards were closely supervised.
The 2004 scandal that the 306th was supposed to be cleaning up after, meanwhile, hardly seemed to have left a presence. Guiliani says detainees never mentioned it. And the members of the 306th rarely discussed it or speculated about how it had happened.
According to Rubenstein, if a soldier began to show a tendency toward violence, he was rotated into another part of the camp. One sergeant, for example, was removed from the base for pointing a weapon at his own men.
One of the more serious misconduct investigations involved the theft of $42,000 from the property room that held prisoner belongings. Suspicion eventually focused on one of the soldiers staffing the room. Rather than prosecute the alleged culprit in Iraq, however, commanders opted to handle the situation when the unit returned to Dix. The case remains under investigation, a military source says.
The work, in heavy armor and unrelenting heat, was grinding. Needing some kind of release, the camp held weekly boxing matches, known as the Friday Night Fights. And unlike most bases in Iraq, the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had wireless Internetcourtesy of two ingenious soldierswhich allowed them to stay in close touch with folks back home.
When it came to sins of the body, the commanders decreed that Abu Ghraib was to be a clean camp. Under an edict known as the “SAD” policy, sex, alcohol, and drugs were banned. Once the unit reached the prison, however, that policy as it related to sex soon evolved into a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as members of the heavily co-ed unit hooked up.
Alcohol was not too hard to find. It was sold under the table by Iraqis who worked at the prison, brought from the local town at considerable danger. Booze also arrived in care packages sent from home.
The stress of the job led an uncounted number of soldiers to use sleep aids and mood stabilizers prescribed by the base hospital. After one soldier fell asleep in a watchtower and blamed his medication, the command staff pleaded with the medical bureau to keep them apprised of what the soldiers were being prescribed.
Where there was wireless Internet, there was also Internet porn. So much porn was being downloaded that it routinely clogged the system. “We would have to shut it down and clean it out, and everyone would get angry with us because the system was down,” says one of the soldiers who was responsible for the network maintenance.
One enlisted man found himself transferred off the base when he was caught e-mailing doctored nude photos of a new officer around the base. Investigators determined that the pictures were phony, and they found hundreds of other
doctored photos on the computermany depicting the spouses and girlfriends of other soldiers.
Over the initial months of their deployment, the soldiers in Abu Ghraib knew that the insurgency existed outside the walls only because of the shells that were lobbed randomly into the prison. But on the evening of April 2, 2005, that changed. Shortly after 7 p.m., Gerald Della Salla was walking across the compound toward his room when mortars and rockets began arcing their way into the facility. His boots blew up clouds of orange dust as he ran for cover.
Small arms fire soon started up from the south, and then, from the northwest. Marines in the tower opened fire with heavy machine guns.
Della Salla found himself helping a major fetch medical supplies as rounds continued to impact around them. Both men were knocked over by the concussion wave from a shell, and each wound up in the hospital.
In Level 1, Guiliani had been watching from the bunker as a detainee named Ali swept the area outside one of the camps. Normally, Guiliani would have been out watching him, but he trusted Ali to work alone. Two years earlier, Ali had been working at a base when he was spotted removing a television from a garbage bin. Ever since, he had been a prisoner at Abu Ghraib.
“He was one of those guys who I couldn’t understand why he was there,” Guiliani says.
Then a mortar shell exploded, followed by a second. As Guiliani walked outside to yell at Ali to return to his compound, a third shell struck between the two men. The blast blew Guiliani backward into the bunker, leaving him with throat burns. Ali lost a chunk of flesh from one leg. Soldiers dragged him into the bunker. Ali survived, and finally got his release at the end of the year.
video: Abu Ghraib was attacked over a three-hour period by at least 60 and as many as 100 insurgents as part of an elaborate attack to breach the walls and free detainees.
Suzanne Rubenstein, meanwhile, went looking for two missing soldiers. Later, she and Bogart made seven trips under threat of incoming fire to help transport doctors and nurses from the mess hall to the hospital to treat wounded troops and prisoners. Only later, as the unit pieced together what had happened, did they realize that the rain of artillery had been part of a large, coordinated attack on the prison by insurgency forces.
The operation had begun earlier in the day with a series of ambushes and roadside bomb attacks on the roads approaching the prison. The aim of those initial feints was to prevent reinforcements, according to a written account of the battle by Maj. Robert Berry of the 306th. Insurgents even stationed someone outside the base with a video camera to capture the attack. The video was later posted on the Web.
At 7:35 p.m., insurgents attacked Tower 4 on the southeast corner of the base with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and hand grenades. The apparent plan was to distract the soldiers with the multiple attacks and then drive a fuel-laden truck bomb into one of the corners of the wall. Once the wall was breached, insurgents would rush inside, free the detainees, and cause as much chaos as possible.
But the truck detonatedpossibly from Marine fire200 feet from the wall, too far to knock a hole in it but close enough to wound several Marines manning the tower. When the insurgents rushed in, they found the wall intact. Catching them in the open ground, Marines cut them down with machine gun fire and grenades.
video: Here the fuel truck explodes during the April 2, 2005, attack on Abu Ghraib prison. The truck exploded, either by the bomber or from Marine fire, 200 feet from the wall, failing to breach it. Still, the explosion was enormous.
Inside the prison, meanwhile, prisoners chanting “God is great” picked up homemade knives and clubs, lit fires, tossed rocks at watchlights, and tried to escape. In one camp, the prisoners set fire to their mattresses to create a smokescreen and cut a hole in the fence. A lone soldier, Angus McClellan, used non-lethal rounds and drew his pistol to prevent them from wading into the rest of the prison.
“He saved a lot of lives that day,” Guiliani says of McClellan. “If they had gotten out, we would have had to open fire on them, and there were so many, some of them probably would have gotten close enough to hurt us.”
With small arms fire coming from several sides of the prison, it was difficult for the men and women inside to determine the direction of the attack. Some of them fired their weapons, and in the confusion, nearly shot other soldiers. At one point, Hussey himself believed that the wall had been breached and prisoners and insurgents were loose inside the base.
In the end, the three-hour assault didn’t receive much attention outside of Iraq. But it has been described as one of the war’s most coordinated attacks on a U.S. base. The most important lesson, Berry wrote, was “not to underestimate the enemy,” even one which appears to have limited resources.
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.
“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.
Some complained that Hussey was too verbally abusive. When he was confronted by a subordinate, Hussey often lost his temper. Sometimes he would simply transfer them off the base. There were at least four such transfers, including Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, who had clashed with the commander on several occasions over his management style.
“He didn’t like to be second-guessed,” she says. “I would raise questions about things he wanted to do, and he would get angry with me.”
According to Rubenstein, the final straw came in June when she had a disagreement with one of Hussey’s officers over the transfer of prisoners. Rubenstein was sent abruptly to Camp Bucca, where she became the senior command sergeant major for an even larger base which contained 10,000 prisoners and 3,000 soldiers and civilians.
“At Bucca, I had even more responsibility than I did at Abu Ghraib, but I was still irritated about the transfer,” she says.
Gerald Della Salla, meanwhile, was furious when he was handed a shotgun and moved from his job as a clerk in the detainee processing section into the camps.
In his inspector general complaint, Della Salla pointed out that he was not a military policeman, and he hadn’t received detainee operations training back at Dix. He wasn’t even qualified on the shotgun. “I have no qualifications for this, no necessary training,” he wrote in the e-mail to the IG. “To work like that is dangerousfor everyone.”
For his part, Hussey says soldiers got additional training in Iraq. And he acknowledges that his command style strained his relationship with his men, but his goal was larger than that.
“It’s not a personality contest,” he says. “I know I have some NCOs [non-commissioned officers] who will never talk to me again, who won’t be sending me a Christmas card, but we did what we had to do. I’m going to stand by my accomplishments.”
As August merged into September, the number of prisoners grew to more than 5,000, double what it had been when the 306th arrived. And the closing of Abu Ghraib didn’t seem any closer than it did back in December, when officials told Hussey he would only have to run the place for 60 days.
Then, in two groups in August and September 2005, the Army released 2,000 prisoners. A press release said the prisoners had been cleared of all charges, and stated that the move “marks a significant event in Iraq’s progress toward democratic governance.”
But unit insiders couldn’t help but think another reason was sheer overcrowding. “You don’t always know all of the reasons for the releases, but we were busting at the seams and something had to be done,” Rubenstein says.
Most of the members of the 306th had arrived in Iraq convinced that every detainee was a terrorist. But as the months passed, the simple work of running the prison taught them that things weren’t quite so clear-cut. It became obvious, they say, that men rounded up in counterinsurgent operations were being held under limited evidence.
Rubenstein ran the office where detainees were first brought in flex cuffs after their arrest. She eventually came to believe that a lot of Iraqis were unfairly swept up in those raids.
“If there wasn’t any physical evidence or the sworn statements were duplicated for each one, you knew there was something questionable,” she says. “A lot of times, they would go to a house looking for someone and just bring everyone in.”
The prisoners learned the basic charge against them quickly, but they routinely waited six months for a formal review of those charges. And because they weren’t allowed visitors initially, they often had to wait three months before they learned whether their relatives knew where they were.
“The whole process just took too long, and that was bad for them, and bad for us,” Rubenstein says. “It made them unhappy. It’s difficult being in a detainee camp anyway, and they were in Abu Ghraib, a place they feared. They had no idea what was coming next.”
On the roads of Iraq, Rene LeClerc got a sense of how average Iraqis felt about the detainee system. On several occasions, he says, crowds of angry townspeople crowded his convoy buses.
One time, LeClerc recalled, a traffic jam halted the convoy. Soon, Iraqis clustered around and began yelling at the soldiers. The crowd grew into the hundreds. LeClerc and the other soldiers pushed the crowd back.
“I’m saying, we’re fucked!” he remembers.
Finally, the order came down to simply shove the civilian vehicles aside. An armored car came forward and pushed the cars into a drainage ditch along the road. The convoy moved on. “The Iraqis didn’t ask for it, but getting the cars out of the ditch was their problem,” he said. “We didn’t make any friends that day.”
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.”
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.
“Our military leadership has been loathe to speak against our present policies, and all too often it is the ‘Yes Men’ who are promoted and rewarded,” he wrote. “I’m afraid that this war in Iraq has become this generation’s Vietnam.”
For months after his return, Landis talked almost obsessively about the war. Last September, his wife, Kathy, tired of it, and asked him to see a VA counselor. Landis made the call, but the earliest appointment he could get was in February. That appointment was postponed. Landis finally got his hour with a counselor on May 22, nine months after that initial call.
Gerald Della Salla lived at home for three days until tension with his parents forced him to move out. He started to pursue his acting career again, until one day when he went to audition for a soap commercial.
“I was around all these buzzing, chirping actors, and I kept saying to myself, these people have no idea that a month ago, I was on a fucking Iraqi highway,” he says. “It was a sign to me how far the culture is removed from the war.”
Della Salla instead took a security job. For a while, he grew queasy every time he drove underneath a highway overpass, because back in Iraq, insurgents sometimes launched ambushes from those spots.
“Certainly, it’s dissipating, but those kinds of things linger with me,” he says.
Suzanne Rubenstein returned to Long Island and her suburban life. She has taken a job at a local department store to help cover family expenses. She will retire from her long military career in October. She says she is proud of her service in Iraq, but remains unhappy about her clashes with Hussey. “I look back and believe I did an outstanding job,” she says. “The part I regret is that I couldn’t get along with everyone.”
John Hussey returned to his job in the Rockland County courts and moved on to lead a Civil Affairs unit. He admits that he was irritable when he got back, and it took a while to get used to the give-and-take of his civilian job.
“Here, it’s more finesse and politicking,” he says. “Back in Iraq you expected your orders to be carried out.”
For Josh Bingham, the kid from Kentucky, however, the war still hasn’t quite ended. Bingham reached Dix in January 2006, and promptly suffered a nervous breakdown. He says he was watching television one night and he began to weep. He heard voices and thought people were talking about him. He blames the breakdown in part on the guilt of that roadside bombing the previous May.
Diagnosed with severe depression, Bingham spent the next five months in military and civilian hospitals, including Walter Reed. Last summer, about a month after he was discharged and returned home, he found that he couldn’t handle the prison job. His wife left him.
Bingham moved in with his parents. He spends much of his time in the house unless he is with his closest friends. He takes powerful mood-stabilizing drugs. He sleeps well one night and poorly the next. Once a week or so, he sees his daughter, now three. “I don’t feel like doing anything,” he says. “I don’t like to leave the house, and I won’t go anywhere unless it’s with someone I know.”
In his bedroom, Bingham keeps a plaque that he received from the National Guard for his service. It reads: “This is presented to a true American hero in recognition of your service and sacrifice in the cause of freedom. Your service will never be forgotten.”
But Bingham feels a bit forgotten. The men from his National Guard unit haven’t stayed in touch, and dealing with the VA has been difficult. He was given an $11,000 severance package by the Army, but the VA wants him to use it for his medical care. “I’m getting to the point where I can be around people I don’t know, but I would just like to have a normal life again,” he says. “I haven’t had a normal life since I went overseas.”
The Pentagon finally returned Abu Ghraib to Iraqi hands in the spring of 2006. In the 18 months since the 306th MP Battalion returned from Iraq, the Pentagon has only expanded its detention program. In March 2005, the U.S. military was holding 8,900 detainees in Iraq. Today, that figure has climbed to more than 20,000the bulk at the ever expanding Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
And more than 10 percent of the troops slated to go to Iraq in President Bush’s “troop surge” were military police, going overseas to guard prisoners.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 29, 2007