Like his fellow unit member, Adam Gray, Daniel Keller wanted to be a soldier from the time he was a young boy. Like Gray, once Keller finally joined the Army, he also took pride in being a professional soldier.
"I always thought being a soldier was this honorable and noble thing," he said. "You're doing a job that not many other people can do so that other people don't have to."
Keller was from southern California, and wanted to find a job in the military that would enable him to "blow shit up." His Army recruiter convinced him to become a tanker.
Keller's unit, Bravo Company in Battalion 1-68, "was not a disappointment to me at all…[it] was a cutting edge unit, and the general soldiering skills were outstanding.
"We were outstanding when we first got there."
During the early part of his tour in Iraq during 2003, Keller and those with the 4th Infantry Division - the larger detachment that included Battalion 1-68 - were tasked with searching for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and finding former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Troops combed through the country to find WMDs, even scouring surfaces with metal detectors. It soon became clear that the search for WMDs was a bust, but U.S. forces were thrilled when they succeeded in finally fulfilling the other part of their mission: Capturing Saddam Hussein.
After the early incursion, and once the 4th ID found Hussein, some troops felt there was less urgency with their operations.
"The excitement from the initial insertion into a foreign land ... wears off," said Keller. "You're just not excited by it any more. The adrenaline rush of your life being under threat constantly is gone."
They were assigned to other tasks, such as going on patrols and guarding prisoners. For Keller, it was a dramatic shift from their earlier mission, and he and others felt that their new duties were tedious compared to their earlier assignments.
"You're contracted by the government to kill people - that is your job - and you're doing that under the threat of death," said Keller. Shifting to more mundane work, such as patrolling and detaining prisoners, can make a soldier "get bored with that so eventually you start to lose those feelings," he said.
Keller and fellow soldiers monitored prisoners in Forward Operating Base Lion near Balad, Iraq. Some troops resented taking care of detainees, since many of them were suspected of being insurgents who had bombed or fired on Coalition Forces.
"At first, a lot of them were suspected of attacks," said Keller, referring to their detainees. "But later, a lot of the guys we ended up releasing on the same day…we just got mad at people."
U.S. forces anxiously needed to get information, and pressed their captives to cough up intelligence that would help halt attacks.
"One of the first times I saw someone interrogated I was really disappointed," Keller remembered. "It was uneventful; it wasn't frightening, it wasn't scary. It was nothing. It was a bunch of really loud music being played in a dark room with a guy yelling…in an Arabic dialect and some guy…yelling at [detainees] in English."
If such tactics didn't elicit information, he and other troops ratcheted up the pressure through other means. But some soldiers turned on their detainees for other reasons, apart from needing to gather intelligence, said Keller. He and other troops described how they often felt growing resentment toward their prisoners. Some troops were numbed, almost bored, by the everyday violence that engulfed them, explained Keller. And he believes detainee abuse was as an outlet for their anger and frustrations.
"The only thing that really does excite you is when you get to extraordinarily torture somebody," said Keller.
Keller described how he and fellow soldiers abused their prisoners: They dragged detainees through concertina wire, pinned them down while pouring gallons of water into their mouths and noses, and frightened prisoners by bringing them near a machine gun that regularly test-fired bullets (making detainees fear they were being shot at).
After a while, Keller and other troops reflected on what they had done, and soured on how they had treated their prisoners.
"It raises the question of who you really are by showing you the sick things that you're really capable of and what you get tired of," said Keller. He no longer felt the earlier pride he enjoyed as an "outstanding" professional soldier.
After he returned from Iraq, Keller moved in with his mother, and found that he had problems with anger he hadn't experienced before the war.
"I had to actually actively control myself if I felt my temper rising," said Keller. "I had to kind of hold myself back, and sometimes people would have to physically hold me back."
And he started drinking as he never had before.
"I drank a hell of a lot, absurd amounts," he recalled. "That's the self-medication I was doing - when you actually try to put yourself to death by drinking."
Eventually, Keller recognized that many of his problems were connected to his involvement with violence in Iraq, and he sought professional help. He pursued Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a controversial psychological treatment that involves concentrating on a traumatic experience while a therapist instructs the patient to move his or her eyes. For Keller, EMDR has helped mitigate painful memories, including his experience with abusing detainees. He said he no longer abuses alcohol, doesn't have problems controlling his anger anymore, and has returned back to college in California.
But Keller still believes that some of his experiences in Iraq might have permanently damaged him. He's still grappling with memories and nightmares.
He said his life has been inalterably changed by his tour in Iraq.
"My violence robbed me," he said.
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