In late 2003, I started reporting for a book about U.S. interrogation during the war on terror. After September 11, Americans feared another attack. Officials argued they needed to swiftly gather intelligence from their enemies. And many U.S. interrogations became more coercive.
Over time, reports about U.S. detainee abuse surfaced. After the Abu Ghraib photos were published, Americans began to ask: How did young American troops turn to torture? To date, this question has not been fully answered. Yet it also seemed to eclipse another pressing question: What has been the full cost, and the legacy, of engaging in torture?
To answer both of these questions, I began interviewing former detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. troops who had served there.
I met detainees throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan - in their apartments, dingy hotel rooms, and in churches. Many described how they were mistreated and sometimes tortured in U.S. detention facilities. Most were still damaged by the experience - even if they had been abused with what U.S. forces sometimes described as mild forms of coercion.
When I interviewed soldiers who had seen or participated in detainee abuse I noticed that some of them were also haunted by their experiences.
There have been a few small studies on how torture and abuse has traumatized those who have carried it out. But such studies have been hard to conduct because former torturers rarely want to admit what they have done. And I didn't know of any that examined how torture affected U.S. troops who were involved in it.
In the spring of 2006, I located some members of a unit who said they abused detainees in Iraq. They weren't interrogators - they were tankers. This unit was Battalion 1-68, which was part of the 4th Infantry Division. In 2003, they set up a small jail where they housed Iraqis captured on suspicion of insurgent activity. Members of this unit detailed what they had done to prisoners, including terrifying them with mock executions, forcing them to do punishing physical exercises, and subjecting them to sleep deprivation and water torture.
Troops from this unit said there was one soldier who seemed especially upset by the prisoner abuse. In 2004, he was found dead in his barracks in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. That soldier was Sergeant Adam James Gray. Some of the men from his unit wondered if Gray committed suicide, and debated what might have triggered it. Others questioned whether he had had a drug overdose, and speculated over whether traumatic experiences from Iraq had led him to substance abuse. I heard that Gray's close friend, Tony Sandoval, was also searching for answers to his friend's death.
"I hope I can be…instrumental in finding out what happened because he was a brother of mine and such a good friend," said Sandoval. "Now if somebody should come back and say 'It's true, it's positive, he committed suicide,' then there's still another big fight. Why? Why did he have to do that? Nobody was there to help him.
"It doesn't just happen. How come somebody didn't notice this?"
Sandoval forged a strong bond with Adam's mother, Cindy Chavez, and their friendship grew after Adam's death.
"Now she'll be a lifelong friend," he said. "She knows that…my mind holds a treasure for her in memories of him."
He promised to help me look into his friend's death, and told me that Cindy wanted to speak with me.
Sandoval facilitated our introduction: He called Cindy and told her who I was and what I was investigating. But I was still nervous when I first phoned her. I was unsure how she might respond to me looking into the circumstances of her son's death. Her husband, Gray's stepfather, Roy Chavez, answered the phone. He was warm, but firm.
"I'm going to give the phone to Cindy, my wife," he said. "But I want you to promise me that you're going to be very careful with her because she has already been through a lot."
I gave him my word that I would do so.
To my surprise, Cindy was grateful that someone wanted to know what happened to her son. There were two questions Cindy wanted to answer. The first was what happened to her son at Fort Wainwright - what caused his death, if there was any foul play involved, if there was any kind of cover-up.
The second was what had happened to her son in Iraq - what caused him to come home looking troubled.
Cindy had a nephew who had been to Iraq, and he had also been changed by the war. Seeing her son and nephew transformed like this reminded her of the Vietnam veterans she saw in her youth. They too had changed because of their wartime experiences.
And so, while she was moved to find out what happened to her own son, she was also propelled by deep empathy she felt for other mothers - mothers who had lost their children or seen them return from the war traumatized by their experience.
Michael Montgomery, co-producer of the documentary, asked Cindy if she feared what we might discover.
"Are you worried about what you might find out knowing what you already know and knowing what it's been like in Iraq?"
"I'm not worried," she told us flatly. "I've already been through the worst. I just want answers…I want the truth."
We contacted as many of Gray's former unit members as possible. Some were still in the Army and declined to speak with us; others refused because they worried about retribution by the military, even after they had been discharged. And some met with us but offered opaque accounts about what occurred in Iraq. But over several months of reporting we were able to piece together what happened to Gray and those with whom he served in Battalion 1-68. We learned how their mission changed over time - how they went from being tankers to troops who went on raids and oversaw detentions.
Most of the veterans we talked to said they were traumatized by the war in some way. Some of them said that the greatest source of guilt and anxiety centered on their experience with abusing and torturing detainees. Hearing their stories further reinforced for me how detainees and troops were damaged by the same experiences with abuse and torture - albeit from different perspectives. This compelled me to shift the focus of my book, None of Us Were Like This Before, to more fully explore the trauma shared by the victims and victimizers I had met. Over time, the story of how troops were affected by detainee abuse became the focus of our documentary.
It was clear that talking about what happened in Iraq was difficult for most of the men in Gray's unit. Many of them evaded us after interviews. One veteran granted us a long interview, but wouldn't talk any further. After months of unreturned phone calls he sent me a text message: "Can't do it. Can't talk about Iraq any more - too painful. Can't…"
Another soldier, Jonathan Millantz, genuinely wanted to help us with our investigation, but revisiting his experiences in Iraq proved to be painful for him. Millantz called me three days after our first interview. He told me our discussion stirred agonizing memories, and shortly after I left he overdosed on pills, but survived. I had never had an experience like this before as a journalist, and it reinforced how important it was for me to proceed gently with the subjects of my story, people whose emotional wounds still troubled them deeply.
I corresponded with Millantz for about a year afterwards, and he finally agreed to meet with us once more. Yet recounting his time in Iraq still distressed him.
"It's hard to deal with," he said. "That's why I was kind of reluctant to do this interview to begin with because…I'm going to be thinking about this for a while.
"I do not like talking about it. You two people are the only souls in this world who I talk to about this," said Millantz, referring to Michael Montgomery and me.
Millantz and I stayed in touch after we finished documentary, and he was pleased by how it turned out. He was said he was grateful that we addressed many problems that he and fellow veterans had faced after they left the military, and hoped our investigation could provide some level of closure for Adam Gray's family.
Sometimes Millantz sounded upbeat and positive, and talked about "soldiering on." Sometimes he didn't.
One day he told me he had learned that he had brain lesions that were caused by a concussion from roadside bomb in Iraq. He had suffered from seizures and a minor stroke, he told me. Still, he said he hoped to return to school and study psychology so that he could help fellow vets. That was why he agreed to participate in this documentary project, too: to help other soldiers who'd been through similar experiences..
But he never did go back to school and realize his dream. Jonathan Millantz died on April 3, 2009. Just like Adam Gray's, Millantz was found dead in bed. His mother said he took heavy doses of pain killers the night before. And Millantz's death was ruled accidental, just like Adam Gray's.
Many of the other veterans who contributed to this documentary and my book also wanted to help other soldiers. They hoped to help a fallen veteran, Adam Gray, and by extension help provide answers for Cindy. We might not ever fully understand what killed Adam Gray, but that goal - to help veterans and create awareness about these issues - remains of paramount importance to those who first started us down this journey: Tony Sandoval and Cindy Chavez.
We hope this documentary will offer some measure of that goal.
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