PHILADELPHIA – Some soldiers who have returned home from guarding enemy prisoners in Iraq describe detention camps there as hard, dirty places, plagued by overcrowding and violence, but say the vast majority of U.S. troops treated prisoners humanely.
None said they saw the type of abuse depicted in recently uncovered photographs showing soldiers apparently tormenting prisoners, or posing next to piles of hooded and naked inmates.
"I don't think that has ever happened before, and will ever happen again. I just think it is a bunch of sick soldiers," said Spc. Mark Fogach II, 24, of West Nanticoke, Pa., who was deployed at the Abu Ghraib prison (search) with the 320th Military Police Battalion (search).
Members of the 320th, an Ashley, Pa.-based Army reserve unit that spent eight months guarding the prison before the end of its deployment in March, said the jail had other problems, though, including supply and manpower shortages and an undercurrent of hostility from inmates intent on defying American rule.
Mortars and rockets exploded on the grounds. Thousands of prisoners and soldiers alike lived in tents that offered limited protection from the weather.
Sgt. Adam Mead, of Gouldsboro, Pa., who worked in a processing center for new inmates, said the facility was repeatedly asked to take far more prisoners than it could safely hold.
"We would say, 'Look, we don't have the room for them. We can't support them. We don't have the showers. We don't have the latrines. We don't have the food, and we don't have the guards and the enclosures to make it safe," Mead said. "They would routinely [say], 'You are going to take them anyway.' So instead of having 500 in a pen, you would have 700, and you still have the same number of guards."
Juvenile prisoners, he said, were held in the same areas as adults, despite suspicions that they were being physically and sexually abused by other prisoners.
He said soldiers were called on several times to suppress riots.
"They may be your friend today, and the next minute, they are trying to gut you," Mead said of the prisoners. "You are bringing in insurgents. You are bringing in criminals, murderers. ... You have to have to establish some kind of sway over them."
Mead said "you'd hear the stories" about soldiers or intelligence officers using force or humiliation to control problematic prisoners, but nothing like the type of abuse depicted in the photographs.
"It made me sick, what they did. I'm not condoning that in any way. That is some weird, nasty stuff," he said.
A member of another unit guarding Abu Ghraib said morale was so low among military police that when rumors started circulating about the abuse scandal, "there was nothing anyone could have done to shock us at that point."
"I don't know what kind of sick thing was going on," said Sgt. Denis Ensminger, 40, of the 870th Military Police Unit (search), based in Pittsburg, Calif.
"Was it some kind of bizarre military intelligence thing to break their will? I think it was a bunch of incredibly bored, stressed-out and probably clinically depressed soldiers just losing it and going off the deep end."
First Sgt. Daryl Keithley, a Las Vegas police officer stationed at the prison last spring with the 72nd Military Police Company (search), said most of his fellow soldiers saw it as a point of honor that the prisoners be treated well.
Members of his company complained, he said, when they learned that military intelligence officials were banging on cans to wake up detainees.
"We maintained and we kept the standard that we initially set up — no abuse, nothing is going to go on in our prison," Keithley, 43, said.
Other troops, though, described the effort to maintain a dignified relationship with prisoners as difficult.
Staff Sgt. Scott A. McKenzie, one of four members of the 320th discharged over allegations they physically abused prisoners at Camp Bucca (search), recounted two incidents in which outnumbered reservists fired bullets to protect themselves from mobs of rock-throwing prisoners. At least one prisoner was killed, he said.
"It was almost an everyday occurrence where there were rocks being thrown," McKenzie said.