Revealed: U.S. Soldier Killed Herself After Objecting to Interrogation Techniques
The true stories of how American troops, killed in Iraq, actually died keep spilling out this week. Now we learn, thanks to a reporter’s FOIA request, that one of the first women to die in Iraq shot and killed herself after objecting to harsh “interrogation techniques.”
By Greg Mitchell
(November 01, 2006) — The true stories of how American troops, killed in Iraq, actually died keep spilling out this week. On Tuesday, we explored the case of Kenny Stanton Jr., murdered last month by our allies, the Iraqi police, though the military didn’t make that known at the time. Now we learn that one of the first female soldiers killed in Iraq died by her own hand after objecting to interrogation methods used on prisoners.
She was Army specialist Alyssa Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native serving with C Company, 311th Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne. Peterson was an Arabic-speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at our air base in troubled Tal-Afar in northwestern Iraq. According to official records, she died on Sept. 15, 2003, from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”
She was only the third American woman killed in Iraq, so her death drew wide press attention. A “non-hostile weapons discharge” leading to death is not unusual in Iraq, often quite accidental, so this one apparently raised few eyebrows. The Arizona Republic, three days after her death, reported that Army officials “said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson’s own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.” (Her parents now say they were never told about her objections to interrogation techniques.)
But in this case, a longtime radio and newspaper reporter named Kevin Elston, unsatisfied with the public story, decided to probe deeper in 2005, “just on a hunch,” he told E&P today. He made “hundreds of phone calls” to the military and couldn’t get anywhere, so he filed a Freedom of Information Act request. When the documents of the official investigation of her death arrived, they contained bombshell revelations. Here’s what the Flagstaff public radio station, KNAU, where Elston now works, reported yesterday:
“Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.”
She was was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards, and sent to suicide prevention training. “But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle,” the documents disclose.
The Army talked to some of Peterson’s colleagues. Asked to summarize their comments, Elston told E&P: “The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were.”
Elston said that the documents also refer to a suicide note found on her body, which suggested that she found it ironic that suicide prevention training had taught her how to commit suicide. He has now filed another FOIA request for a copy of the actual note.
Peterson’s father, Rich Peterson, has said: “Alyssa volunteered to change assignments with someone who did not want to go to Iraq.”
Peterson, a devout Mormon, had graduated from Flagstaff High School and earned a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military scholarship. She was trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and was sent to the Middle East in 2003.
The Arizona Republic article had opened: “Friends say Army Spc. Alyssa R. Peterson of Flagstaff always had an amazing ability to learn foreign languages.
“Peterson became fluent in Dutch even before she went on an 18-month Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Then, she cruised through her Arabic courses at the military’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., shortly after enlisting in July 2001.
“With that under her belt, she was off to Iraq to conduct interrogations and translate enemy documents.”
On a “fallen heroes” message board on the Web, Mary W. Black of Flagstaff wrote, “The very day Alyssa died, her Father was talking to me at the Post Office where we both work, in Flagstaff, Ariz., telling me he had a premonition and was very worried about his daughter who was in the military on the other side of the world. The next day he was notified while on the job by two army officers. Never has a daughter been so missed or so loved than she was and has been by her Father since that fateful September day in 2003. He has been the most broken man I have ever seen.”
An A.W. from Los Angeles wrote: “I met Alyssa only once during a weekend surfing trip while she was at DLI. Although our encounter was brief, she made a lasting impression. We did not know each other well, but I was blown away by her genuine, sincere, sweet nature. I don’t know how else to put it– she was just nice. … I was devastated to here of her death. I couldn’t understand why it had to happen to such a wonderful person.”
Finally, Daryl K. Tabor of Ashland City, Tenn., who had met her as a journalist in Iraq for the Kentucky New Era paper in Hopkinsville: “Since learning of her death, I cannot get the image of the last time I saw her out of my mind. We were walking out of the tent in Kuwait to be briefed on our flights into Iraq as I stepped aside to let her out first. Her smile was brighter than the hot desert sun. Peterson was the only soldier I interacted with that I know died in Iraq. I am truly sorry I had to know any.”
UPDATE: A Friday report in The Arizona Daily Sun of Flagstaff reveals that Spc. Peterson’s mother, Bobbi Peterson, reached at her home in northern Arizona, said that neither she nor her husband Richard has received any official documents that contained information outlined in the KNAU report. “Until she and Richard have had an opportunity to read the documents, she said she is unable to comment,” the newspaper reported.
Part II: A Suicide in Iraq
Alyssa Peterson, 27, killed herself in Iraq after protesting “interrogation techniques.” Now another female soldier who met her a week before she died — and who also objected to certain interrogations in Iraq — comments.
By Greg Mitchell
(November 05, 2006) — They served in the same battalion in Iraq at the same time. Kayla Williams spoke with Alyssa Peterson about the young woman’s troubles a week before she died — and afterward, attended her memorial service. Williams even has her own interrogation horror story to tell. So what, in Williams ‘ view, caused Alyssa Peterson to put a bullet in her head in September 2003 after just a few weeks in Iraq?
The death of Alyssa Peterson, 28 – a former Mormon missionary — is first and foremost unspeakably sad, and what was fully in her mind will never be known, especially since her parents apparently knew little about her death until four days ago. But this tragic incident, which I explored in my previous column (see link at end of column), also begs the question: What interrogation techniques drew her ire?
And were they of such a nature that this might explain why this young woman of faith and, reportedly, good nature, would suddenly turn a gun on herself?
The official Army investigation, we’re told by the radio reporter in Arizona who received the documents after an FOIA request, notes that all papers relating to the interrogations have been destroyed. But what do we know about what was going on in Iraq 2003, beyond credible claims that treatment of prisoners was being “Gitmo-ized”?
Perhaps the most specific testimony that may relate to Alyssa Peterson comes from another Arabic-speaking female U.S. soldier who also served in the 101st Airborne at that time in the same region of Iraq. She even wrote a book partly about it.
She is former Army sergeant Kayla Williams, author of the 2005 memoir, “Love My Rifle More Than You.” Much of the publicity about the book focused on her accounts of sexual tension or harassment in Iraq, but it also holds several key passages about interrogations.
In the book and in interviews at that time, Williams, now 29 and out of the Army, described how she had been recruited to briefly take part in over-the-line interrogations. Like Peterson, she protested torture techniques — such as throwing lit cigarettes at prisoners — and was quickly shifted away, but in her case, she survived. But she told me Friday that she is still haunted by the experience and wonders if she objected strongly enough. She also wonders if she could have done more to help Alyssa Peterson after their brief chat just before she died.
But what was Alyssa asked to do in the interrogation “cage” and why did she protest?
Williams and Peterson were both interpreters but only the latter was in “human intelligence,” that is, trained to take part in interogations. They met by chance when Williams, who had been on a mission, came back to the base in Tal Afar in September 2003 before heading off again. A civilian interpreter asked her to speak to Peterson, who seemed troubled.
Like others, Williams found her to be a “sweet girl.” Williams asked if she wanted to go to dinner, but Peterson was not free — maybe next time, but of course, time ran out.
Their one conversation, Williams told me, centered on personal, not military problems, and it’s hard to tell where it fit in the suicide timeline. According to records of an Army probe that were obtained by the radio reporter, Kevin Elston, Peterson had protested, and then asked out of, interrogations after just two days in what was known as “the cage” — and killed herself shortly after that.
This might have all transpired just after her encounter with Williams, or it might have happened before and she did not mention it — Williams was not then involved in interrogations and they did not really know each other.
Peterson’s suicide on Sept. 15 — reported to the press and public (to this day) in the usual vague way as death by “non-hostile gunshot” — was the only fatality suffered by the battalion during their entire time in Iraq, Williams reports. At the memorial service everyone knew the cause of her death. They were surprised and “frustrated,” she comments, since Peterson had only been in a Iraq a few weeks and many of them had been there six months, going back to the U.S. invasion, and had not cracked.
Shortly after that, Williams (a three-year Army vet at the time) was sent to the 2nd Brigade’s Support Area in Mosul, and she described what happened next in her book. Brought into the “cage” there one day on a special mission, she saw fellow soldiers hitting a naked prisoner in the face. “It’s one thing to make fun of someone and attempt to humiliate him. With words. That’s one thing. But flicking lit cigarettes at somebody — like burning him — that’s illegal,” Williams writes in he book. Soldiers later told her that “the old rules no longer applied because this was a different world. This was a new kind of war.”
Here’s what she told Soledad O’Brien of CNN on Sept. 26 of this year:
“Actually, my job was not as an interrogator. So, I didn’t know what their usual rules were. I was asked to assist. And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate. There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes. ….
“They stripped prisoners naked and then removed their blindfolds, so that I was the first thing they saw. And, then, we were supposed to mock them and degrade their manhood. And it really didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t know if this was standard. But it did not seem to work. And it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren’t behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave.”
As soon as that day ended, after a couple of these sessions, she told a superior she would never do it again.
In another CNN interview, on Oct. 8, 2005, she explained:
“I sat through it at the time. But after it was over I did approach the non-commissioned officer in charge and told him I think you may be violating the Geneva Conventions. … He said he knew and I said I wouldn’t participate again and he respected that, but I was really, really stunned and struggled a lot with whether or not I should do anything about it because I don’t know whether or not it’s appropriate technique.”
So, given all this, what does Williams think pushed Alyssa Peterson to shoot herself one week after their only meeting? The great unknown, of course, is what Peterson was asked to witness or do in interrogations. We do know that she refused to have anything more to do with that after two days — or one day longer than it took for Williams to reach her breaking point.
Properly, Williams points out that it’s rarely one factor that leads to suicide, and Peterson had some personal problems, to be sure. “It’s always a bunch of things coming together to the point you feel so overwhelmed that there’s no way out,” Williams says. “I witnessed abuse, I felt uncomfortable with it, but I didn’t kill myself, because I could see the bigger context.
“I felt a lot of angst about whether I had an obligation to report it, and had any way to report it. Was it classified? Who should I turn to?” Perhaps Alyssa Peterson felt in the same box.
“It also made me think,” Williams says, “what are we as humans that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult and to this day, I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation.” Such an experience might have been truly shattering to the deeply religious Peterson.
Referring to that day in Mosul, Williams says, “I realize when it came down to it, I did not have the moral fiber. I did protest but only to the person in charge and I did not file a report up the chain of command.”
Yet, after recounting her experience In Mosul, she asks: “Can that lead to suicide? That’s such an act of desperation, helplessness, it has to be more than that.” She concludes, “In general, interrogation is not fun, even if you follow the rules. And I didn’t see any good intelligence being gained. The other problem is that, in situations like that, you have people that are not terrorists being picked up, and being questioned. And, if you treat an innocent person like that, they walk out a terrorist.”
Or, maybe in this case, if an innocent person witnesses such a thing, some may walk out as a likely suicide.
Original Story Credits to © 2006 VNU eMedia Inc.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on posted Nov 7th 2006