Adam Stevenson saw military service as a way to challenge himself and gain financial independence from his family. Many of his friends in his hometown of Danville, Illinois had joined the Army to gain the same self-reliance, and to meet the strenuous demands of armed service.
After signing his contract, Stevenson was told to report to basic training on September 12, 2001. A day before Stevenson checked in, he watched the World Trade Center crumble on television and wondered how the attacks would affect his upcoming service.
Stevenson wasn't deployed to Afghanistan. Just after he went on leave to see his family during Christmas in 2002, Stevenson received a coded message from his base in Fort Carson, Colorado: He and his unit, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment (or Battalion 1-68) were heading to Iraq.
"There was so much anticipation," Stevenson remembered. "It [was] like going from a crawl to a full-on, dead sprint in two minutes."
Eventually, Battalion 1-68 arrived at Forward Operating Base Lion in Balad, Iraq. There, troops were tasked with guard duties and patrols. They also participated in Quick Reaction Forces (or QRFs) that were poised for raids on insurgent suspects.
Stevenson said he and his fellow troops were frequently without important equipment and resources, and so they often learned to improvise with what they had during missions. They faced the same challenges, and applied the same resourcefulness, when Battalion 1-68 had to fashion a detention facility on FOB Lion.
"At first we would just hang concertina wire in the front and use that to keep them in," Stevenson recalled, describing how they fortified the entrance to his unit's makeshift jail. "And then we ended up welding doors, and then welding barred doors."
"It was very 'Sanford & Son' around there," he said, invoking a 1970s television show about a California junk dealer. "There was a lot of stuff that was duct-taped together, so to speak."
Soldiers readied detainees for interrogation with the same makeshift approached, Stevenson said.
"It was trial and error," he said. "After a while, if stuff…didn't work - if we weren't getting good intel [military intelligence] - we'd leave them alone. We were always changing our method. Sometimes with certain people, stress would work. For certain people, it would have an adverse affect."
Stevenson remembered how the military intelligence workers on the base would often encourage troops to stress out detainees before interrogation.
"It wasn't like they'd say go in there and clock this guy," he said. "But they'd say, 'Make it uncomfortable - put some stress on him.'"
That "stress" involved a combination of sleep deprivation, "stress positions" (forcing a detainee to hold various uncomfortable or painful sitting and standing positions for long periods) and ordering prisoners to do various physical exercises (e.g., push-ups). Stevenson reasoned that such techniques weren't sadistic, but simply aimed at getting critical information.
"We were stressed out and we needed to know what was going on," he said. "We were getting shot at all the time so we needed to know what they knew."
Still, engaging in such work took a toll on Stevenson.
"It's really hard to want to add stress on somebody if you liked [him], because you don't always hate people," he explained. "I never once hated anybody. You feel bad for them too, because look what they're in - they're in a caged room."
When Stevenson returned home he had periodic nightmares. He was edgy. He wanted to be armed whenever he went out. He also became uncomfortable with discussing his feelings, or talking about politics or religion. Stevenson talked to his veteran friends in his native Illinois about his condition. None of them suffered from traumatic stress, and they wondered why their friend was troubled by his experiences in Iraq.
"I have no clue why it bothers you so much and it doesn't bother me at all," one of them told Stevenson.
"Maybe I just looked into it too much," he said. "I didn't like the fact that sometimes people would just talk about the Iraqis like they weren't human…they're still humans."
Stevenson says it was particularly difficult to be fighting against Iraqi insurgents one minute and guarding suspected insurgents the next.
"It was the duality of it - going from one edge of the sword to the other," Stevenson said. "That's what would mess with you the most.
"You're treating these people like numbers and cattle - you're corralling them into an area," Stevenson said. "You've got these guys in the jail and you're talking to them…treating them nicely. Sometimes I [went] back at night and [thought], 'Damn, I could've just been talking to a guy that just killed somebody for no reason.' You're flip-flopping all the time."
But Stevenson found that he tended to empathize with his prisoners.
"I can totally understand why a lot of them do what they do. If somebody kicked my door in at 2 a.m., and took my dad and put a bag over his head, and zip-stripped him, I'd be out there the next night with a rocket, too. And if you say you wouldn't, you're a liar. Or a wuss."
That understanding of his captives, and his interaction with them as a guard, disturbed him long after his tour.
After Stevenson's tour ended in 2004, he went back to school and looked for various kinds of work, including law enforcement. He applied to a sheriff's department in Riverside County, California, and went through their battery of exams. But Stevenson abruptly lost interest when they told him that part of his job would involve work in their jail.
"Never mind," he told them. "I hate working with detainees."
It was disappointing. After all, he was looking forward to a law enforcement career, but couldn't do work that reminded him of his experiences handling prisoners.
"It's not for me - I don't want to work in a jail," he said. "I have zero desire."
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