In February 2004, Benjamin Thompson was sent to Abu Ghraib to guard Iraqi prisoners. Two months after he arrived, photos of grinning American soldiers torturing and sexually abusing naked Iraqis were leaked to the world. Thompson saw nothing like that at Abu Ghraib. What he did see, he says, was worse.
"The public was told the problem was resolved when a few people were prosecuted," the decorated war veteran told a recent gathering of anti-war activists in Madison. "But the culture and the political reality that turned Abu Ghraib into a concentration camp was never addressed. Nothing in the camp really changed."
In a series of interviews with The Capital Times, Thompson described a system with no clear rules or leadership where thousands of Iraqis were held indefinitely without charges. Where they were left out in the open desert, surrounded by razor wire, to die during mortar attacks. Where inept contractors failed to put locks on prison gates and fed detainees rotten food full of rat feces.
Thompson promised those he kept locked up that one day he would let out the truth.
Since then he has criss-crossed the country to keep that promise. He has appeared at anti-war marches and protests and granted interviews to newspapers and magazines. His unlikely friendship with a prisoner from Abu Ghraib is also the subject of a documentary, "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair."
There is little official response to Thompson's story. But spokespeople for the United States military, including President George Bush in a 2004 speech addressing the torture scandal, have insisted that detainees at the prison were treated humanely and fairly. The abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib was the fault of a few rogue soldiers who were tried and convicted, officials say, and not the result of any systemic policy or problem.
Thompson has made it his mission to dispute that official line. "One day I will die. And I will stop telling this story. But it is important that you know. Please listen," Thompson said during a panel discussion last weekend organized by the Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Thompson, a real estate appraiser who spent the first 10 years of his life in Wisconsin and whose family is still based here, found himself, at age 23, halfway around the world in Iraq. A member since 1999 of the U.S. Army Reserve, he and about 100 other men and women with the HHC Unit of the 391st Military Police battalion of Columbus, Ohio, were called up and rushed to the prison with only 12 hours of training on the ground. "They basically said, 'Here's the keys, here's the prisoners, and good luck,'" Thompson recalled.
Saddam Hussein used Abu Ghraib in the 1980s as a torture chamber. Thousands of dissidents were executed there. By the time Thompson arrived in the middle of the Iraqi war, the 280-acre complex and its grim function had been taken over by Americans.
Halfway between Baghdad and Fallujah, it was a key target for insurgents. They fired on it from all sides at all times of the day, from groves of palm trees and apartment buildings and tall grasses and even the desolate desert itself. "It was one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be," Thompson recalled.
Thompson's unit was assigned to the southwestern corner, an area known as Camp Ganci. Ganci was the name of a New York City firefighter killed on September 11, 2001. Camp Ganci was divided into eight enclosures. During peak times, up to 700 Iraqis, Thompson recalled, were packed into each of the eight pens "like livestock."
There was roughly one guard for every 100 Iraqis. Thompson worked in Ganci 6. Somehow, his unit maintained control with little more than "razor wire and the threat of violence," Thompson said.
Thompson said the prevailing attitude among his superiors was that the prisoners were not Americans so were therefore not worth protecting. "My prisoners were killed by mortar fire. By lack of medicine. By lack of sanitation. Food had rat feces it. The water was contaminated and so filthy dirty it gave them kidney stones."
Thompson watched one man die from a heart attack because the military did not provide him with medicine he'd been on for years. "He was the age and build of my father. And he died on the ground right beside me," Thompson said.
Some soldiers called the detainees "towel heads" and "rag heads." But others, like Thompson, befriended them and did what they could to ease the harsh conditions. At times they would even raid their own supply closets to provide their detainees with underwear or extra food.
The Iraqis in Camp Ganci were all ages, classes and professions. "We had children in my camp. The youngest was 10. There was an 80-year-old man who was blind. They were doctors and lawyers and normal people caught up in a legal system that made no sense," he said. "Some of them spoke English and became very good friends of mine. And I had to explain to them that we didn't hate them, and we didn't know how to make things better. That there was not a damn thing we could do."
Each American soldier was ordered to lug around 50 pounds of protective armor, a helmut, and weapons in temperatures that could reach 130 degrees. Thompson carried one more thing to protect himself. "I hung a chess pawn from my armor," he said. When detainees were angry, threatened to riot, or started to scream, Thompson would point to the pawn. "This is all I am," he would say.
Thompson said he was brought up to believe that United States soldiers took care of their prisoners of war, guilty or not. Yet at Camp Ganci, Thompson said, detainees were given "nothing but T-shirts and tents" to protect them against mortar attacks. Sometimes, as machine gun fire churned up the sand, Thompson would see children and teenagers dancing and cheering the insurgents.
A mortar shell landed on Tent 19 in early April, killing and maiming several of the detainees inside. An Iraqi died while praying. An old man who waved to Thompson every morning from his bed on the floor of the tent died. Thompson wasn't sure how old he was. 'Everybody in our camp looked old," he said.
After that, Tent 19 was taken down and burned. Bamboo grew where it had been, a weird garden in the rocky desert.
Several weeks later, another attack killed about 20 more detainees and sent 100 maimed to clinics in helicopters. Thompson was awarded a medal for valor that day. "The Iraqis were using blankets to bring people and pieces of people out to us near the gate where we were doing triage," Thompson said. "This man was convulsing next to me. He had shrapnel in his head. It took him a couple of minutes to die. I was working on another guy about four feet away putting tourniquets on both his legs."
A month later, Thompson said, that detainee was returned to camp. "He had no legs. He thanked me for what I did. And then I locked him back up. That was a very strange moment."
Life at Abu Ghraib was full of strange moments. Thompson is still haunted by the time he checked on a detainee who had been locked for hours without food or water in a steel box under a guard tower. These containers were used as isolation chambers to punish detainees. This particular detainee had tried to start a riot. Guards would bang on the walls to prevent him from sleeping.
When he opened the door to the box, Thompson said, he saw the prisoner, dehydrated and chained to the floor. "He had pissed himself," Thompson said. But what startled Thompson even more was the sight of his own huge shadow in a helmet and armor, carrying a machine gun.
The reality of life at Abu Ghraib was kept secret, Thompson said. "After the scandals, all these political people would come and they'd think it was awesome because they didn't see any piles of naked people," Thompson said.
He speaks with sarcasm, something he learned from the war. "Rumsfeld visited and told us we were winning the war. But what was happening was we were depriving people of their basic human rights. We were leaving them out in the open to die. And we were hiding all this from the rest of the world. Because America is honorable."
When the media visited, Thompson said, guards were ordered to give the men extra showers and food to "make them happy." Detainees were also bribed with promises of freedom that were rarely kept.
The prison scandal broke at the end of April 2004. That July, Thompson and the other soldiers were ordered to load the detainees into a flatbed truck and drive them to the opposite side of the base where a new facility had been built. The new facility was called Camp Redemption. "It was part of their answer to the whole torture scandal," Thompson said.
The new prison "was a little prettier," Thompson said. Some aspects of life there were greatly improved. Instead of sleeping on a vermin-infested wooden platforms, detainees were given cots. Instead of drinking filthy water that their captors were ordered to not even use for brushing their teeth, they were given clean water. They had air conditioners inside the tents.
But it was no redemption. The contractor hired by the military to build it installed doors backwards and failed to provide locks for the prison gates. The soldiers had to send a convoy to Baghdad to buy locks themselves from the PX, the army supply store. Wiring caught fire. Electricity went out in the middle of the night, leaving Thompson and the rest of the guards outnumbered 100 to one in pitch black.
Even the chain link fencing around the new facility was shoddy. "It was lower quality than what you'd find on a baseball field in the U.S.," Thompson said. "You could take it in your hand and bend it."
The detainees were still housed in tents, and still stuck in legal limbo.
One year after arriving in Iraq, Thompson's unit was sent home. As soon as it landed back in Fort Dix, N.J., a brigadier general warned the soldiers that they would face retaliation if they shared journals, photos, or stories about Abu Ghraib, Thompson said.
But he is not fazed. "People need to learn what really happened over there."
Like many other veterans, Thompson found adjusting back to life in the States tough. He had nightmares and panic attacks. He still has hallucinations about the dying prisoners he treated. He feels tremendous guilt for the role he played in guarding men, some of whom he said he came to love. His spinal cord is deteriorating because of the heavy armor he wore and his ears constantly ring. He receives disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder. "You see these things, and you become a broken person," he said.
But he is piecing himself back together. He resigned from the Army. He meditates. He has a girlfriend. He is earning a graduate degree in social work from Ohio State University so he can work with veterans like himself. And he is speaking out about a war, he said, that he believes is a crime.
Days after the prisoners were moved out, Camp Ganci was razed. Abu Ghraib was handed back over to the Iraqi government in 2006.
As for the Iraqis who Thompson guarded and befriended during that long year, one former high-ranking prison official, who was removed in the wake of the abuse scandal, estimated that as few as one out of 10 had "any particular intelligence value."