Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Grappling with torture

Guest Blogger

The torture took place away from hot spots like Abu Ghraib and was conducted not by CIA agents or prison guards but by U.S. soldiers who never expected their tour of duty would present them with these unimaginable conditions. The soldiers participated, witnessed or blew the whistle on the abuse – and however they responded they were badly scarred. In “None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture,” Joshua E.S. Phillips explores the largely hidden side of the American torture horrors: the effects on soldiers who never signed up for such service. Here he describes the harrowing -- and sometimes tragic -- impact.

By Joshua E.S. Phillips

It seems each day brings heartbreaking news of American soldiers who’ve perished on the battlefield, and veterans who’ve taken their own lives. We tend to associate wartime trauma with combat, such as bloody firefights. But there are other grueling wartime events beyond the battlefield.

President Barack Obama recognized this last month when he extended veterans’ access for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve met enough veterans to know that you don't have to engage in a firefight to endure the trauma of war,” said Obama.

That makes two of us.

About two years ago I met former Army interrogator, Don Dzagulones, who explained how his involvement in detainee abuse had a more harrowing long-term impact on him than surviving deadly ambushes in Vietnam.

“When you’re attacked, you have to respond,” he said. “But other circumstances, like prisoner abuse for example, you have a choice…[and so] you’re probably more affected by wanton acts of violence than responding to violence.”

This kind of wartime trauma remains largely unrecognized and misunderstood by the public. But it isn’t unknown to clinicians.

After four years of research, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that abusive violence -- which included “torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs [prisoners of war]” -- had the strongest correlation with PTSD for the 3,000 veterans interviewed for the study.

Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different than Vietnam, but they share a common feature: they were marked by U.S. detainee abuse and torture. Some soldiers who served in these wars participated in abuse, some were bystanders, and some blew the whistle and protested.

How many of today’s soldiers have been traumatized by their exposure to, or involvement in, abusive violence like detainee abuse?

So far there’s no current research that matches the Vietnam veterans’ study findings. But some soldiers were remorseful about their involvement with abuse, and were troubled or traumatized by it.

Army combat medic Jonathan Millantz contacted me four years ago to tell me about detainee abuse in Iraq, beyond Abu Ghraib.

“It’s very tough when you have a conscience that is filled with atrocities [and] you know what you did to people,” said Millantz. “I went to confession, I went to counseling. I still can’t forgive myself for what I did to those poor people.”

Millantz was attached to a tanking unit, Battalion 1-68, at Forward Operation Base Lion in Balad -- in the “Sunni triangle” -- during 2003-2004. Soldiers with Battalion 1-68 had to swap their tanks for humvees, and conduct sweeps that targeted suspected insurgents in house raids.

Suddenly, troops who were trained to be tankers were tasked to be jailers. Sometimes they were encouraged and ordered to help “soften up” detainees for interrogations. Sometimes soldiers from Battalion 1-68 admitted they saw, and even participated in, detainee abuse at FOB Lion.

Not every soldier who engaged in detainee abuse was traumatized by it, and there were other wartime experiences that were damaging. But some members of Battalion 1-68 were gravely distressed by abuse.

Like Dzagulones, Millantz reconsidered his involvement in prisoner abuse and torture when he returned home, and it drove him to speak out at anti-war events. The distress over wartime experiences lingered for him and fellow unit members long after their return: some had violent outbursts, were plagued by depression and sleeplessness, and some engaged in substance abuse and other self-destructive behavior.

Sergeant Adam Gray exhibited these same patterns of behaviors. Gray was another member of Battalion 1-68 who was also troubled by his involvement in detainee abuse. After he attempted suicide in August 2004, the military documented his emotional state: “He spoke at length of many positive experiences in Iraq, such as rebuilding schools and eating with Iraqis. However, he also made reference to events that bothered him and that he could not speak ... about.”

His inability to discuss those “events that bothered him” exacted a devastating toll. On August 29, 2004, Gray was found dead in his barracks room. His Army buddies reflected on his death, and considered what he had been through and how it affected fellow soldiers.

“It's been hard over the years coming to terms with what actually happened over there,” said Millantz. “It haunts me every day, and it’s something I’ll never get away from.”

In the end, he and fellow unit members never did get away from it. The pain and distress of the war damaged soldiers in Millantz’s unit, and the self-destructive behavior ultimately destroyed lives -- including those of Gray, and eventually even Millantz.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: U.S. torture; torture by soldiers; abu ghraib; post-traumatic stress disorder  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: BOOK WORLD - August 8, 2010
Next: Desegregation’s unintended consequence


not a part of the detainee abuse discussion i've heard much about, much less considered. what were tankers doing with prisoners in the first place? what on earth was going on there? it's interesting to consider the other forms of trauma that our vets are 'grappling' with these days. i would expect they would be haunted by what they did and even just witnessed. many of the soldiers who went over there were just kids. i hope we're support them, just like the other vets. sounds like a super interesting read.

Posted by: IndyGO1 | August 9, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company