Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, What Killed Sergeant Gray.
Cindy Chavez: You just want to know, why is your child dead?
One soldier's death reveals an untold story of torture in Iraq.
Adam Stevenson: It wasn't like they would say go in there and clock this guy. But they'd say, you know, make it uncomfortable.
Jonathan Millantz: I saw some stuff that really turns my stomach.
What happens to soldiers who commit brutality?
Don Dzagalones: You don't just forget what you're capable of doing.
Millantz: I went to confession, went to counseling, I still can't forgive myself.
From American Public Media, "What Killed Sergeant Gray." First, this news.
From American Public Media this is, What Killed Sergeant Gray: an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Stephen Smith.
When the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, difficult questions arose about how military prisoners should be treated. Government documents show that debates about whether and how to use harsh interrogation techniques - what some people call "torture" -- rose all the way to the top circles of President George W. Bush's administration. Similar questions have been bitterly argued in congressional hearings, in newspaper editorials and around American dinner tables.
This program is not about whether or not a civil society should condone torture--or about whether harsh interrogation actually works. Both are important questions and both have been talked about a lot over recent years. This documentary is about an issue that gets far less attention: what happens to the soldiers who abuse their prisoners or the soldiers who actually commit acts of torture.
American RadioWorks producer Michael Montgomery and reporter Joshua Phillips tell the story of veterans from one Army combat unit who are haunted by the things they did to prisoners in Iraq. These men returned home with deep psychological scars. Some turned to drugs and alcohol. Some tried to commit suicide.
One member of the unit, Sergeant Adam Gray, survived the Iraq war only to die at home. An exploration of his death and his combat unit's activities reveals what can happen to soldiers who feel the freedom -- or the pressure -- to do things in war they can't live with later.
Our documentary, What Killed Sergeant Gray, is narrated by Michael Montgomery.
Cindy Chavez: So that you can put a face to the story.
Michael Montgomery: Michael Cindy Chavez has lots of photos of her son Adam. She sets out a stack on a coffee table and shuffles through them.
Chavez: These are all from Iraq. This is Adam. Adam.
In the pictures, Adam's a dark-haired soldier in uniform with a round face and a sleepy grin. He looks much younger than his 23 years. There's a picture of Adam in body armor; a picture of his tank. There are snapshots of other soldiers, and pictures of Iraqi children.
Chavez: I have many, many, many pictures of him and the kids. They're all hanging out, smiling, arms around each other. He loved the kids. He used to border patrol the schools. He loved 'em.
Cindy Chavez has Adam's letters from Iraq, too. Some of them are on cassette tape so she can still hear his voice.
Adam Gray: Hey, mama, this is your baby boy…just wanted to say hi.
Adam recorded this letter in 2003, shortly after he arrived in Iraq. He roared into the country on an Abrams Battle Tank.
Gray: We're just rolling around Iraq right now, not doing a whole lot here. Chain smoking like a nut, that's about it…I was thinking about maybe coming over for supper tonight, what you making? Make some meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That'd be great.
Adam had trained years to destroy an opposing army's heavy weapons. But when the U.S. invaded, the Iraqi army quickly collapsed. Adam Gray was disappointed.
Gray: I'm bored, I'm lonely [chuckle]…(I) got a shitload of ammunition and nothing to do with it. I mean, we got 10,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition. We got, I don't know, 18 or 20 main gun rounds, and not a lot of things to shoot. There's no killin' left to do, Mom. They didn't leave me any killin'. Them bastards.
Cindy Chavez says Adam was quoting a movie he liked, a military comedy called "Major Payne." She says Adam had wanted to be a soldier from the time he was three years old. They lived near a recruiting station in Wisconsin, and Adam would walk over and pick up pens and ball caps. He grew up to be a gung-ho soldier who worked hard and partied hard. He planned to be a career soldier. But, like many other Americans who served in Iraq, when Adam came home he had changed.
Roy Chavez: You know, one thing that really shocked me was when we picked him up at the airport, that he wasn't in his uniform.
Adam's stepfather, Roy Chavez.
Roy Chavez : When he came home from basic training and he walked up our door-our driveway he was in his full dress uniform. And when we picked him up at the airport I thought he'd be fully dressed, and he wasn't. He was-you know, just had his regular clothes on. I don't know if he was just sick and tired of it, "I'm on leave. I don't want to deal with this anymore, you know, I just wanna, just, I wanna have a good time and that type of stuff. Just be a regular, normal person."
Adam's mother Cindy says he was more than sick and tired. She remembers the look on her son's face.
Cindy Chavez: He looked troubled. I think that's the only word I could say is troubled for what he saw, troubled for maybe what he had to do.
[Sounds of wind chimes]
Cindy and Roy Chavez's house is perched in the rugged hills near Tehachapi, California. On many days winds pick up from the Mojave Desert and sweep westward across the Chavez house, stirring to life wind chimes and a Green Bay Packers flag hanging in the front yard. When Adam returned here on leave, he told his mother he was glad to be home, where he felt safe.
Cindy Chavez: But he would get this glazed look over him and we'd be in discussion and his eyes would literally get glassy and he would just disconnect. And you know he was back there.
Adam spent hours alone in his room. Sometimes he strummed his guitar, but sometimes he was just silent. Cindy says the family tried to cheer him up with parties. They marked the holidays he had missed during his deployment in Iraq.
Cindy Chavez: First, we had Christmas. We went up to the nursery and got a tree. And had Christmas with Christmas lights, cookies, the whole shot. And then we had New Year's Eve and then we had Valentine's. From March--what was it, March 1st to March 21st? something like that--we crammed in every holiday we could because March 20th was his birthday, so we had a big birthday party for him.
[DVD: Happy birthday, Adam, that's from Mama--You gotta re-open it-and Uncle Roy.]
In a home video, Adam is wearing jeans, with a t-shirt stretched over his belly and a beer in his hand. He face is fixed in a tight grin.
Cindy Chavez: And that was the very last picture that I got of him was at that birthday party. He never came home.
Adam went to a military base in Alaska, where he began training for another deployment to Iraq. He said he was eager to return to battle. But on the evening of August 29th he went into his room in the barracks and locked the door. Hours later, he was found dead. The military suspected a drug overdose.
Cindy Chavez has a video of the memorial service held for Adam in Alaska.
Officer: "We gather here today to remember Sergeant Gray and bring closure to his death."
At the service, an officer who spoke said some people thought Adam's death was a suicide. His parents were taken aback. They knew Adam had been diagnosed with acute Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, but they thought his condition was stabilizing.
Roy Chavez: What caused a boy, you know, war hero, come home, getting ready to do it again...? If Adam had a way to prefer to die, I think he would have rather died there. You know, 'if you're going to die, you're going to die serving your country. And…it was just a blow.
Cindy Chavez: You just want to know: why is your child dead?
Adam's death made Cindy Chavez think again about conversations she and Adam had while he was home. Adam didn't tell her much about Iraq. But one night, over beers, he told Cindy about two disturbing memories. There was an incident in which Adam's unit opened fire with heavy machine guns on what they thought were insurgents. Instead, their bullets cut down an Iraqi family, killing a young girl and her father.
Cindy Chavez: And when he talked about it that one particular night, he choked up and he goes, "Ma, I couldn't see. We couldn't see. It was just the night vision and all it does is give you a shadow."
And Adam told his mother another story that also haunts her. He said he and other members of his unit had been assigned to raid houses and round up suspected insurgents. And then they were assigned to guard the prisoners.
Cindy Chavez: And he goes, "And then you take them all in and cage them in like an old-fashioned jail. And then you tell them not to speak. And he goes, "Inevitably one will start speaking." He goes, "So then we tie them--their hands up and then tie 'em to the highest rung on the bars. And then they have to hang there for a couple of days and they're not allowed to sleep, drink, eat…And then we'd interrogate 'em and stuff, and they'd tell us anything because they were so sleep-deprived and hungry and everything else." And thinking of that I thought that was so torturous and inhumane, but it was an order. That's what they had to do.
Gray told his mother that sometimes they'd soften detainees up for interrogation; they'd keep the prisoners up all night long by blasting loud music next to their ears.
Cindy Chavez: I think it--for my own self, I'd rather be shot in the head than have to torture somebody like that.
Cindy Chavez agreed to an interview with us to help reporter Joshua Phillips with a book he was working on about torture and the war on terror. She hoped we would help her find out what happened to Adam in Alaska. And she wanted to know why so many soldiers, like her son, were coming home from Iraq so troubled.
Cindy Chavez: I just want answers, but I want the truth. And I want to find somebody on this planet to find me that information…I want to know exactly what screwed all these kids up in Iraq.
Adam Gray arrived in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division shortly after his 23rd birthday in March, 2003. We know that by early summer, he and the other tankers were fighting a different war than the one they had trained for. The insurgency was gathering strength.
Archival Tape: Stepped up patrols and high alert today in Northern Iraq, after the 4th Infantry Division was attacked overnight here in Balad, a Sadaam stronghold.
Iraqi insurgents shot at Coalition soldiers and planted roadside bombs. Men of the 68th Armor say they were encouraged to fight back in aggressive new ways. Tony Sandoval served with Adam Gray.
Tony Sandoval: Our rules of engagement were, if you felt threatened, shoot. If you felt threatened, then shoot and kill somebody.
The unit made house to house raids. They kicked in doors and arrested Iraqis suspected of supporting the insurgency.
Archival Tape: Soldiers: Down! Down! On the ground! Reporter: American forces search for men behind mortar attacks this week that injured 22 U.S. soldiers. To residents of Balad, that means raids, detentions and sometimes threats. Soldier: You help me find the bad guys, and all their mortars, or we come back with our tanks and we drive through your fields, and run over your houses.
Iraqis captured by Adam Gray's unit were taken to a makeshift holding pen at Forward Operating Base Lion. That's the name of the battalion's headquarters, situated in a volatile base in northern Baghdad. At the base, Tony Sandoval says, soldiers of the 68th Armor had to guard the prisoners.
Sandoval: You're sittin there and you're lookin' at these guys and you have to let 'em out when they got to go to the bathroom-- "Mister mister I gotta…" - you know, and they just go out and pull their dresses up and pee and wash - and you know, and everything else, and you're just like, I have to be a babysitter for a guy who probably killed an American.
One of the medics assigned to the jail was Jonathan Millantz. Millantz had joined the Army in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. When he enlisted, he was filled with patriotic fervor. But he was disgusted by what he saw in Iraq.
Jonathan Millantz: I was attached to there where I served as a medic, and let's just say less than hospitable… environment for the Iraqi detainees who we really didn't have--we really didn't even know if they were guilty or not. It was just a potluck thing that we grabbed them up…My position pretty much was to take vital signs of prisoners while they were getting, for a lack of better words, questioned or interrogated. And I saw some stuff that really turns my stomach that I'm really not going to disclose.
Our first interview with Millantz was typical of many conversations we had with men from 68th Armor - Adam Gray's unit. The soldiers confirmed that abuses took place but they were reluctant to provide incriminating details. And the interviews often stirred bad memories. Two days after we talked, Millantz says he almost died from a drug overdose. Reporter Joshua Phillips.
Joshua Phillips: I knew that he was traumatized by the experience, but I had no idea that revisiting those events, revisiting his experience in Iraq would cause him so much trauma.
A year later, Jon Millantz agreed to say on tape what he had already told us privately. He said he and other members of Adam Gray's unit had abused Iraqi prisoners. Millantz said they kept prisoners awake with screeching rock music and forced detainees to do punishing physical exercises. They tied prisoners' limbs together and left them for hours. They poured water into the mouths and noses of prisoners to simulate drowning:
Millantz: We were holding them when this happened, because anyone voluntarily--I don't care who you are, if you're getting killed or drowning you're gonna resist and you're gonna fight back so…I don't care who has you, it's--you're drowning and it's just a natural response in your body, you're gonna fight back. ... The people, some of the guys in the jail, I remember they're like "Why am I even here?" You know, "I got arrested. I'm just a farmer trying to make a living." And they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Millantz says he is haunted by what he saw and by what he did.
Millantz: It's very hard-it's hard to deal with. I mean, that's why I was kinda reluctant to do this interview to begin with, because I mean, I'm gonna be thinking about this for a while. Because I do not like talking about it. You're--you two people are the only souls in this world who I talk to about this. It's very hard and uh, I had a breakdown last time, afterwards.
Mongtomery: What can we do to make sure you don't have a breakdown this time?
Millantz: Well, I, actually I have people I can talk to now, more
The public discussion about torture in Iraq has focused largely on the well-publicized abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad. But investigations by human rights groups and by the military itself have exposed detainee abuses in many places in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Six soldiers who served in 68th Armor confirmed that those abuses took place at Forward Operating Base Lion. They told us that sometimes an interrogator told them to "soften up" a prisoner. But sometimes the soldiers were just bored and resentful, and took it out on the detainees.
Adam Gray's friend Tony Sandoval.
Sandoval: You have to watch these prisoners. And they're the reason why you're in the damned country. You know, they screwed up, whatever else. They're the reason you're tired. They're the reason you're hungry. They're the reason you're thirsty. They're the reason, you know, you're miserable. And here you have to babysit 'em. And so sometimes if they wouldn't shut up you'd say, "Alright, start doing pushups. Or get in, you know, some physical position or something." You know, it's not like I've ever seen some guys go in and tell them to get naked and stack up on each other. I think that's gross. You know, none of us were that stupid. But there was other times when you wanted to pull out a pistol and put it to the back of their head. And, uh, you know, everyone had that sort of tension. And it was very uncomfortable and it was miserable.
Other soldiers agree that they found themselves doing things that they never thought they would. Adam Gray's tank commander, Oral Lindsey says he kept detainees awake by playing a Kid Rock CD on a Sony boom-box sent over to Iraq by Lindsey's mother. He says he'd start up the CD at 1 or 2 in the morning, wander off for a while, and return much later to ensure no one was sleeping.
Lindsey: If you've never seen that stuff, yeah, it sounds cruel and inhumane but 'til you've been there and done that, I mean it's… shit, you lose your morals, man. You know, I mean, God damn, he's out there making bombs, you know? He's out there trying to kill you and all you want to do is go home to your family, so hey. You do what you gotta do, you know?
Dan Keller: I mean, none of us were like this before.
Dan Keller served in Adam Gray's unit, too.
Keller: No one thought about, you know, dragging people through concertina wire or beating them or sandbagging them or strangling them or you know, anything like that… before this.
Keller says sometimes the soldiers on guard duty would stage mock executions. An Iraqi would get pulled from the jail, ostensibly to go to the bathroom. A gunner would test fire into the emptiness outside the base. The Iraqis back inside would think the prisoner had been executed.
Keller: They would be crying whenever we came in to take someone to go to the bathroom because they thought they were about to be executed. We thought it was fun as hell.
Keller talked about torture as a way to break up the tedium. The medic, Jonathan Millantz, says he participated in the abuse because he was "consumed by hate."
Millantz: To give that much amount of responsibility and power to a bunch of guys who are full of hate and resentment of getting shot at and gettin'--watching their friends get killed and seeing people decapitated and a whole bunch of gruesome things. Then putting those guys in direct control of the people who did these things was very ironic to me. And uh, I think any human being in that sort of situation would have done the same thing.
Sifton: You couldn't come up with a better recipe for detainee abuse.
Human rights investigator John Sifton.
Sifton: You don't want to have people going out and fighting insurgents, capturing them and then bringing them back to their base and guarding them. And yet that's exactly what happened in Iraq. So it was really no surprise when at forward operating bases you started to see abuse in the fall of 2003.
Typically, prisoners are guarded by MPs - not the combat troops who capture them. But in the early days of the Iraq war many ground troops were doing guard duty they had never trained to do. John Sifton has interviewed dozens of soldiers about torture. He runs a private investigation firm called One World Research. He says investigations show that detainee abuse swelled in the first year of the Iraq war-- when Adam Gray was deployed with the 68th Armor.
Sifton: Detainee abuse has been very widespread, but that doesn't mean it's all the same. There's been spontaneous abuse at the troops' level; there's been more authorized abuse; there's been overlap-a sort of combination of authorized and unauthorized. And you have abuse that passed around like a virus; abuse that started because one unit was approved to use it, and then another unit which wasn't started copying them.
It's not clear how much of the abuse that took place at Forward Operating Base Lion was directly ordered. We tried to ask the Army. We sent a list of questions to the Army's office of public affairs. We asked which interrogation techniques had been approved for use by the 4th Infantry Division. We followed up several times but the Army never responded.
The men from the 68th Armor had differing accounts of what senior commanders knew about the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. Dan Keller.
Keller: It's a tricky subject, that one because, you know, while it's not a direct order, a lot of people kind of make it sound like you should be hurting him a little bit.
Keller says the water torture wasn't formally ordered but was suggested.
Keller: The higher up NCO's, platoon sergeants kinda push you like, "Hey, you know what that guy did?" Then say, "You know what we used to do…" or "You know what they used to do in 'Nam…" You know, something like that. And then they'll give you a detailed description of torture techniques and then you go and perform torture.:13
The commander of Adam Gray's tank unit, Oral Lindsey, says sleep deprivation was ordered…by the battalion's military intelligence or S2 section.
Lindsey: Well, S2 may have come out, or one of their NCO's may have came out and said, "Hey guys we can't let these guys sleep" or whatever. OK, no problem. But somebody from S2 had to do that. But I couldn't just go out and say, "Hey, man. I'm not gonna let these assholes sleep.
Another former member of the unit, Adam Stevenson, also recalls some of the ideas for softening up detainees came from the unit's intelligence officers.
Adam Stevenson: It wasn't like they would say, "Go in there and clock this guy" or anything. But they'd say, you know, "Make it uncomfortable. Put some stress on him. Don't let him sit down for awhile." Stuff was changing all the time.
Tactics were changing because commanders couldn't seem to get an edge on the insurgency. An article in a military journal co-authored by the head of the 68th Armor's intelligence section detailed how officers struggled to develop useful information against the insurgents. It reported 700 Iraqis were detained by 68th Armor. But it didn't say what kind of interrogation techniques were used on the prisoners.
Both U.S. law and the Geneva conventions prohibit many of the abuses the men from the 68th Armor described. The soldiers got a cursory briefing on the Geneva conventions before they deployed. Some of them must have known that what they were doing was possibly illegal. Army medic Jon Millantz says he and others tried to report the conditions at the detention facility to superior officers but got nowhere.
Millantz: When I said that these conditions were inhumane for the detainees and, um… All my opinions were shut-shut down, basically. And I just, I was just told to, you know, mind my own business and do my job, and "don't make a fuss, don't make a scene." And the last thing you wanna do is piss off a bunch of soldiers when you're deployed to a faraway country, because you might not come back.
Whether aggressive interrogation and detention tactics are effective is another question. Military commanders have defended the raids and mass detentions as necessary to pacify the region and hunt for high level targets. But an investigation by the army's inspector general's office reported units of the 4th Infantry Division grabbed whole villages because combat soldiers were unable to figure out who was of value and who was not. Former soldier Adam Stevenson says the mass detentions alienated local Iraqis.
Stevenson: I can totally understand why a lot of 'em do what they do, you know? Like if somebody kicked my door in at 2 o'clock in the morning, and took my dad and put a bag over his head and zip-stripped him, you know, 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.
Sergeant Adam Gray of the 68th Armor died in 2004. Cindy Chavez pressed the military to produce information about what happened to her son. Months after his death, his family received a copy of an army investigation, a document known as a psychological autopsy. She gave us a copy of the report. Reporter Joshua Phillips.
Phillips: According to the…the military's investigation, Adam Gray was found in his bed at Fort Wainwright with a plastic bag over his head and a can of Dust-Off and he was found dead in that condition. The documents also find that Adam Gray attempted suicide three weeks before he died.
Dust-Off is used to clean electronic equipment, but some people inhale it to get high. Sometimes they use a plastic bag to catch the fumes. The psychological autopsy said Gray had told his friends he was disturbed by things that happened in Iraq. It said he'd been drinking heavily and getting high. The Army concluded that Gray died from an accidental drug overdose.
Roy Chavez: What do you do when, when your life sucks? You cope, you numb, whatever you can do to get through the problem.
Adam's stepfather, Roy Chavez.
Roy Chavez: We're men. We're supposed to be tough. Then all of a sudden, we find a breaking point. In that case accidents happen. I don't think personally that Adam wanted to die; I don't think he had a death wish.
Back in his civilian days, Adam was a quick-tempered guy who got into fights. After Iraq, that short fuse got him into trouble. Before his death, Adam threatened another soldier at knifepoint and was reprimanded. Cindy Chavez has talked with some of the soldiers who served in Iraq with her son, and she says they're facing the same struggles as he did.
Cindy Chavez: I mean, this is just not about Adam. This is about all of these kids that are in serious trouble. They go out into the real world again and they've got issues that have not been dealt with. All of them have that one thing in common. They got those short tempers, they snap. They're jumpy, you know, they're fidgety, they're…you know, have alcoholic problems, whatever. They lose their families.
And sometimes their families lose them. Cindy Chavez says she understands loss is hard on everyone, but she especially feels for the mothers who've lost children.
Cindy Chavez: Every time I turn on the news and they have that ten-second segment, you know, my heart breaks all over for the person that's on the end of that phone call.
Cindy Chavez: You know, they're born with part of your soul. And once that's gone, you know, that's a whole part of you that's gone.
Smith: This is Stephen Smith … you're listening to What Killed Sergeant Gray … an American RadioWorks documentary. Coming up:
Don Dzagalones: It's something you have to live with, man. You don't just forget what you're capable of doing.
If you visit our website, you'll see a video of everyday life in the 68th Armor. And you can read profiles of other men in the unit. That and our entire catalog of documentaries at American Radioworks.org.
Support for this program was provided in part by the JEHT Foundation. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "What Killed Sergeant Gray," the story of an American soldier and his combat team and the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. I'm Stephen Smith.
Not everyone who returns from war comes home with post-traumatic stress disorder. But recent estimates on U.S. army troops in Iraq and Afghanistan put the figure at more than 18 percent. Experts believe the psychological scars of war may be worse for soldiers who took part in particularly brutal acts of war, such as torture. A key factor is guilt: a soldier who feels guilty about what he or she did is more likely to be psychological damaged by the experience.
The U.S. military offers help for troops returning with post traumatic stress disorder. But it can be hard for soldiers who have committed abuses to tell anyone what's troubling them. Some are ashamed. Some fear that they'll get prosecuted. Trauma experts also say the longer a person waits to get help, the more deeply rooted the symptoms of PTSD can grow.
The troops we talked to for this documentary say they are plagued by guilt about abusing prisoners in Iraq. One theme that emerged is how troubled these soldiers are by the kind of people they became, what they discovered they were capable of, when they got put in charge of Iraqi prisoners. Joshua Phillips and Michael Montgomery continue now with the story of Army veteran Daniel Keller.
Dan Keller: Right now we are at La Jolla cove, and right next to some of the beaches around here and Birch Aquarium, one of my favorite places to come and just relax.
[Sound of a helicopter overhead]
Keller: Old school helicopter flying by, you don't see those very much anymore.
Montgomery: This is Michael Montgomery. Dan Keller goes to the ocean when he's looking for solace. He got home to California in 2004, after almost a year in Iraq. Now, Keller's drawn to the blue waters and crashing surf of the pacific.
Keller: You need a place to clear your head, you need a place to release the stress. When you're walking around, and you still have that urge, like, you're still in a war and you need to fight at the drop of a hat, if it's getting you angry you gotta keep it in and then you can come to a place like this and you can just sit and relax, think it over in your head, let it out, do whatever you need to do. And then look out over the waves, and it's nice to see it's all still moving.
Keller has bushy brown hair and dimples that show when he smiles. He's in his mid-20s. Not long after he got home from Iraq, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He was drinking and getting in fistfights. He couldn't seem to hold down a job or stay in school. He'd go through intensive therapy only to find himself drinking again.
Keller: It's not like you go to the bar, you get drunk and puke and wasted, blah blah, frat boy kind of stuff, which is bad enough on its own. I mean, you drink and you drink and you drink and all of the sudden you think about putting yourself out by drinking. When you actually try to drink yourself to death.
By one estimate, 300,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of PTSD or depression - like Dan Keller. Keller says he can't seem to shake the ready-at-the-trigger alertness he developed while riding on top of a tank, not knowing where the next attack might come from. Experts call that "hyper-vigilance." Keller calls it swivel-neck. And he says he can't sleep.
Keller: Four in the morning and I'm still awake.
Recently, Keller recorded his thoughts during one sleepless, boozy night.
Keller: I never really drink anymore. I was sober when I was going to therapy. [Chuckles. Sound of taking a drink from a bottle] But every once in a while I get to these points where I can't sleep.
Keller: It'll just be lying awake. And that's when you really start thinking about it is when you're there, alone, at night, in bed, staring at the ceiling and you're thinking about all the bad stuff you did.
Keller says the bad things he and some men in his unit did included hurting Iraqi prisoners. He and other soldiers used water torture on detainees, and staged mock executions to terrify the prisoners.
Keller: There's a lot of stuff that you're not even supposed to do that you do over there. And you know, of course it raises the morality issues. Did you know that you couldn't do it? Does it matter? Is it something that you should of known that you couldn't do? It makes you wonder, you know, did I do this because of the stress? Did I do this because of the situation? Should I have known not to do this anyway. Am I at fault here? You know, and if I am, does that make me a bad person? A lot of your emotional ramifications come from these feelings of guilt.
Dan Rather: Good evening. New investigations are being launched into the deepening and widening story about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some Americans.
Dan Keller says his guilt increased when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. That was soon after his return from Iraq.
Keller: What was terrible was seeing what I was doing outside of myself. It was like having an opportunity to be there watching myself do it, you know? And that is pretty God awful to actually have to come to terms visually with what you're doing.
Montgomery: One perception was that what happened in Abu Ghraib was terrible and reprehensible but it was really a few kind of rogue people at Abu Ghraib.
Keller: That's the thing: it's not a few rogue people, it's just maybe a few rogue people at that particular unit, you know, in that particular place but there were a lot of us doing it.
Human rights investigators say the abuse of prisoners has occurred in many places in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers involved in abusing prisoners can't expect to get much sympathy. But it appears that Dan Keller's story of remorse and emotional anguish isn't unusual. Social scientist Richard Kulka says committing abuse can inflict deep emotional scars on the torturer.
Richard Kulka: We can go into long philosophical discussion about torture, or violent - particularly torture, and is it effective or not? Is it justifiable given what people have been through? But the one thing I think that the research over all those years and different conflicts has shown is that those who might be doing it as part of their duty, it can have very consequential effects on their current health, their mental health, their long-term health, their relationships with their families, and other things.
Kulka was chief author of a major study on the effect of combat service on veterans following the Vietnam War. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that as a soldier's combat exposure increased, so did the likelihood of PTSD. But a little-known dimension of the study explored other factors connected with PTSD, including exposure to what researchers term "abusive violence." That includes taking part in torture.
Don Dzagalones: It's something you have to live with, man. You don't just forget what you're capable of doing.
Don Dzagalones served in Vietnam as an Army interrogator.
Dzagalones: When I think about Vietnam, sure we were shelled many times, you know, and I experienced terror many times. That's not what bothers me. It's being put in a position where you have a disproportionate amount of power. You know, and how you employ that or don't employ it is what you have to come to grips with, you know, as you age, face the end of the line, whatever.
Many veterans shy away from talking about the dark side of war, but nearly 40 years ago Dzagalones revealed some of the abuses he was involved in in Vietnam.
Archival Tape: We have another gentleman here, Don Dzagolones, who was also an interrogator. He was an interrogator for 11 months in Vietnam.
Montgomery: As part of a series of public tribunals in 1971 known as Winter Soldier, Dzagulones described some of the techniques he applied to captured north Vietnamese. They included starvation and dehydration, forced labor, and electric shocks.
Dzagalones: When I used the field phone on this, uh, on the prisoner, I was instructed to do so by a major. We'd found out that the man had a lot of information and I was instructed to use any means within my abilities, or anything I could dream up to get the information out of the guy. And I worked on that particular prisoner for three days.
Dzagalones says even though he's testified about what he did, he hasn't told everything. He just can't.
Dzagalones: My concern at this point in my life, being 60 years old, is that future generations don't view me as being some kind of crazy monster. Somebody that was out of hand. I was part of the machine, part of the process. As is everybody else in a similar circumstance, again including these kids.
The kids Dzagolones is referring to are soldiers who have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He raises a key question. Who is at fault for the abuse? The individual? The commanding officer? Or the system itself, what Dzagalones calls "the machine?" It's easy to assume that people who commit abuse are just bad people - people who were psychologically damaged before they entered the military. Social scientist Richard Kulka says his research about Vietnam vets suggests otherwise.
Kulka: There was speculation at the time that said, look, people who participate in abusive violence in Vietnam are probably people who were abused at home, they were abused as children etc. That wasn't a very strong relationship at all, in fact I think it was an insignificant relationship in our data, but in general, most people are not going in there already predisposed to do these things and therefore it can have a very significant effect on them.
In other words, it's not that a bunch of abusive people signed up to be soldiers. It's that something happened to them that led them to torture detainees.
Darius Rejali: Most of us, given the right set of incentives, would torture. That is the evidence of almost 40 years of social/psychological research. It's the situation, not the disposition that leads us to torture.
Darius Rejali is an expert on the history of torture and the author of "Torture and Democracy." He says experiments have shown that given the right incentives, the majority of people will engage in torture - though there are always some who won't. Rejali says several factors can lead to abuse, including giving soldiers unclear direction and failing to monitor what they're doing. He says those factors were present at Abu Ghraib.
Rejali: The soldiers were not told which set of authorities or which set of rules to follow and whichever one they did were kind of rewarded for. So, that kind of circumstance is just asking for violence.
Soldiers we spoke to from the U.S. Army's 68th Armor told us a similar set of circumstances prevailed at Forward Operating Base Lion: it was never clear what the rules were, and there were no consequences for abuse--even if it was reported to their commanders. Rejali was not surprised to hear that some of those soldiers are now suffering from psychological trauma.
Rejali: The personal cost is extremely high. The longer secret is kept, the longer whatever those unfortunate habits are that have followed--whether they're alcoholism or abuse within the family or just basically nervousness and high levels of anxiety and inability to hold a job--whatever those are, for the people who have done these things, the cost is high and it's much more important to get them in early.
Military medical officials say they offer treatment for veterans no matter what caused their trauma. Bob Ireland is the program director for mental health policy at the Department of Defense. He says the military does try to help vets suffering from abuse-related trauma
Bob Ireland: It's taken incredibly seriously both by medical personnel--psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists--and those in the faith-based community, because this often is an intensely personal and shameful kind of thing for folks that is driving and feeding their Posttraumatic Stress Disorder experience.
But Ireland acknowledges vets may be reluctant to seek help because they're afraid they'll get in trouble. And, soldiers may feel pressure to keep silent. Former army medic John Millantz:
Jon Millantz: It was beat into our brains the entire time we were there: "This is a company level operation. Do not talk about it. Do not tell anybody about this."
Millantz says one reason he is speaking out about the abuses and how they affected his life is so other soldiers can learn from his mistakes.
Millantz: I got back, I got addicted to painkillers and just pretty much ruined my life…I dropped out of college…It's very tough when you have a conscience which is filled with the atrocities that you know you did to people. I went to confession, went to counseling, and I still can't forgive myself.
When Jon Millantz signed up for the Army, he was a gung-ho patriot. He says he still loves the men he served with, and still thinks of himself as a soldier. But his experiences in Iraq changed his views.
Millantz: I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. I met some of the greatest people, I met people who were snipers in the Army, people who were Special Forces, people who did a wide array of jobs in the military and were suffering the same thing I did.
[sounds of a protest rally]
Millantz: I was in a big protest in Manhattan. There was about 60,000 people behind us and I was leading the march. And a guy from American Legion came up and called me a traitor, and I guess I can understand where he's coming from but he didn't see the same thing I saw …Don't get me wrong, I love our country. I love where I live, but I hate the people in charge.
Millantz says his work with Iraq Veterans Against the War helped re-organize his life and pull him out of depression and drug abuse. He says he's off drugs and hopes one day to study psychology, to help fellow veterans.
Millantz: How I got by is actually spiritually having inner strength, which I did get from the Army. Because, I mean, I'm not totally dissing the military. There are some great things about the military-it's just not this occupation. It gave me strength, it gave me confidence, and I met some of the most wonderful people in the world in there.
Perhaps if Adam Gray had not died in Alaska, his life would have changed directions, toward recovery. That's the way it's been for some of his war buddies. Some of the other soldiers in the 68th Armor say that, like medic Jon Millantz, they're still suffering. But they say it's getting better, five years after fighting in Iraq. They say it helps to get therapy. And it helps to go to school. That's another thing the military offers: help with college tuition.
[sounds of piano]
Tony Sandoval: I gotta remember all this stuff-it's been months!
Adam Gray's good friend Tony Sandoval is back at school today, at a community college in Wenatchee, Washington. He's studying music. One afternoon he played a bit of Beethoven in an empty classroom. Sandoval remembers listening to Beethoven CDs back when he was in Iraq.
Sandoval: It's funny how the music can span all the years and affect me even as I'm sitting in tank in the middle of nowhere in Iraq and listening to his CD not, 150, 200, however many years ago, he made song and I'm enjoying it in the middle of hell.
Sandoval went through another kind of hell when he got home in 2004. He was angry and aggressive. Funny things didn't make him laugh. Sweet things didn't taste sweet. His marriage broke up. Sandoval says that before he went to Iraq, he thought he was a nice guy. But now he knows the violence inside him; what he's capable of doing.
Sandoval: I mean, I threw another human [laughs]. His, uh, he had been tied up behind his hands and I picked up and threw him in the back of a Humvee, you know. And for me, at that point, it wasn't thinking about "that was another human being." I wasn't worried about how he thought, I wasn't worried about was he embarrassed or anything else. I just picked the guy up and I threw in back of the Humvee. And at that point in my thinking it was like, "that was fun. That was funny. We're getting the bad guys now. We're getting something accomplished."
Sandoval says he never saw the abuse other soldiers described, and all he did to prisoners was make them do exercises. But he's still troubled by seeing a side of himself he didn't know before. And he's still grieving for his friend Adam. But he is doing better. So is Dan Keller. Keller's life is still rocky. But he says he got some help through fiction writing and therapy.
Keller: Mostly in therapy it seems to me that you have to find your place, find what's your fault, find what's not; find what you can deal with and, you know, what's just a part of you now.
It is a key question--for the men themselves, and for the rest of us. What is the soldiers' fault? And what are we to make of them? Are they victims, or are they perpetrators?
Darius Rejali: I think the answer to your question is that they're both.
Political scientist Darius Rejali has written extensively about torture.
Rejali: They're perpetrators and they're victims and I think the higher up ladder you go, there are less victims and more perpetrators. And the lower down the organizational ladder you go, there are more victims. And, you know, that's not to say that they're not responsible for their actions, because some soldiers in identical situations refused to do these things.
But Rejali says research shows that organizations exert powerful influences on human behavior. Given organizational pressures, an individual may do something he wouldn't have done otherwise. Many therapists who work with veterans agree. Lara Battles is a psychologist who's treated a wide range of trauma cases. In fact, she helped a member of Adam Gray's unit, though for privacy reasons she can't tell us which one. Battles says it's understandable that the soldiers behaved as they did under the circumstances.
Battles: Well I think there's a culture of support for what we would think of as ethically distasteful behavior for what was going on with these soldiers. At that time that was sanctioned by our government, it was sanctioned by their officers. Whether it was officially sanctioned by the army is something I don't know. What I do know is it was not sanctioned by their ethics when they entered the army. It was not sanctioned by their hearts.
And Battles says the trouble is, once soldiers leave that culture and come back to regular life, they have trouble living with what they did. So they may be angry or abusive - even dangerous. She and other experts say the emotional pain these soldiers carry has ripple effects-on their families; on their workmates; on all of us.
Cindy Chavez was never in a combat zone, but since the death of her son Adam Gray, she's fought her own kind of war. She has struggled to go on living.
Cindy Chavez: You never get over it. You learn to do it. Because you don't have any choice.
Cindy's husband Roy worried about her after Adam died. He told us about it one afternoon. Roy was out in the garage, leaning against Adam's old truck, with the family dogs running around. He said at one point after Adam's death, heavy drinking put Cindy in the hospital.
Roy Chavez: It was a scary time. It was a real scary time. Because you sit there and you go, "oh the war's going to take another person-and it's gonna be my wife. And I'm going to be all alone."
Cindy stopped drinking and joined a grief counseling group. Despite Adam's death four years ago, she and Roy still find ways to keep him in their life. They put presents for Adam under the Christmas tree. His name is engraved on the license plates of Roy's truck. And Roy gives Cindy cards signed with Adam's name on Mother's Day.
We joined Cindy and her husband Roy in Tehachapi, California on Memorial Day, 2008. Under a thick canopy of trees in a city park, veterans and their families gathered to honor the living and dead.
Cindy Chavez: This is always a difficult time.
Cindy and Roy didn't join the others. They stood off to the side, near the street corner, crossing their arms in thick jackets. Cindy wanted to honor the soldiers, but not the war.
Man 1: Today, we celebrate the contributions of those who have paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom and peace.
There were lots of speeches. A high school student recited a poem. An officer talked about new benefits available to military families. And at the end of the ceremony, a local veteran said something that seemed to float over and confront Cindy and Roy Chavez.
Man 2: A veteran is someone who, at one point of his life, wrote a blank check, payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to, and including his life.
Later, sitting in the Chavez's living room, we asked Cindy what she thought Adam would think about the idea that he gave the government a blank check payable with his life.
Cindy Chavez: If he was here right now, he'd be like, "Ma, come on now." He'd still be over there. He'd still go back over there…because that's just who he was. He's wanted to do it since he was three years old. That was his passion. And that's the only thing that I can come out of this with any good. There are a lot of people that die an old age, never even being close to being able to accomplish a passion-their ultimate passion. And he did.
During our last interview with Cindy, we told her what we had found out about Adam and his unit during our investigation. We admitted weren't able to find out much more about the circumstances of his death in Alaska. But we told her we did know more now about what happened in Iraq. Reporter Joshua Phillips:
Phillips: Well, Cindy, you know we have spoken to about a dozen of the people in his unit, [Cindy: Mm hm] and it's true about what Adam said about torturing detainees. That did happen [Cindy: Mm hm], but it's also true he wasn't the only one--that plenty of guys were doing it in the unit. And it's clear that many of them are deeply troubled because of it.
Cindy Chavez: Oh I can't even imagine how you couldn't be. Because when Adam was telling me the story and it was graphic, I told him, I said, "I can't even listen to this." And he's like, "Well Mom we were ordered to do that." And I'm like, "I understand that, but this is too crazy." And how can you bend people's minds like that? And then shoot you back in the states and say, "Hey, go be a family man." It's so many ways of wrong.
Cindy Chavez told us that knowing what Adam did gives her some insight into why he was so troubled. She draws some comfort from learning that it wasn't just Adam who abused prisoners in his power; it was other soldiers, too. Cindy grieves for those other soldiers--the ones still alive; the ones who still carry that burden.
Cindy Chavez: You're born with a soul. And then they take it and they restructure it. And your soul is still there. It's made by a much bigger person than the military. And that soul is telling you no, this is wrong.
Smith: Upwards of one and a half million American troops have been sent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those that come home - and that's most of them - get offered more mental health care than any generation of U.S. troops before them. The diagnosis of PTSD - Post-traumatic Stress Disorder - emerged out of the Vietnam War. The condition, by many other names, has been described by warriors for thousands of years. The trauma experience by soldiers who inflict trauma on others is far less familiar, far less studied, and far less likely to generate sympathy. But as the men of Adam Gray's combat team will tell you, the one who scars another soul can come away wounded as well.
"What Killed Sergeant Gray" was produced by Michael Montgomery and Joshua Phillips. It was edited by Catherine Winter. We had help from Anja Tranovich. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Suzanne Pekow, Nancy Rosenbaum and Ariel Kitch, Chris Heagle and Craig Thorson.
I'm Stephen Smith.
At our web site, you can watch a video of daily life in the 68th Armor, and find out more about the men in the unit. You can also download our catalogue of more than 100 documentaries. That's all at Americanradiowors.org
Support for this program was provided in part by the JEHT Foundation. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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