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Created: May 7, 2004
Latest Update: May 7, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/07/national/07SOLD.htmlOriginal Source URL.
From a Picture of Pride to a Symbol of Abuse in Iraq.
May 7, 2004
From a Picture of Pride to a Symbol of Abuse in Iraq
By JAMES DAO
[F]ORT ASHBY, W.Va., May 6 — For weeks, the Mineral County courthouse has proudly displayed the photographs of local soldiers stationed in Iraq along the stairway at its front entrance. "We're hometown proud," the banner said.
But in the last few days, one photograph was taken down, that of Pfc. Lynndie R. England, whose face has become famous for a painfully different reason.
Private England is perhaps the most prominently displayed person in a series of photographs taken in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad that show members of the 372nd Military Police Company abusing prisoners.
In one image, Private England is clenching a cigarette between her teeth while giving a thumbs-up in front of naked Iraqi prisoners. In another that became public on Thursday, she is holding a leash attached to a naked prisoner's neck.
The photographs have left her family and friends aghast and searching for answers. They are convinced that she would never have thought up anything so cruel on her own and that she must have been following orders.
If that is the case, the family and friends then have to reconcile how the tough, bold and independent young woman they know followed an order that seemed so obviously wrong.
"She's kind of stubborn," her mother, Terrie England, said. "But that doesn't mean she can't follow orders."
Her family brims with accounts about how strong willed Private England could be. In one, a thunderstorm and tornado blew into town just as her older sister was preparing to graduate from high school, forcing students and their parents to flee the ceremony. While her family huddled in the lowest spot that they could find in their trailer home, Private England wandered into the yard. Ignoring her family's pleas and with the wind howling as loud as a freight train, she tried to photograph the passing funnel.
"You talk about the unusual," Mrs. England said. "That child liked it."
It was a mother's way of saying her daughter could be impetuous, sometimes to the point of imprudence. It was, perhaps, the same streak that caused Private England to marry a longtime friend when she was 19, only to divorce him within two years. Or to sign up for the Army Reserve while in high school, over her parents' objections.
A friend, Kerry Shoemaker-Davis, said: "She is straight in your face, tells you how it is. That's why it shocked me. It's so not her. It's not in her nature to do something like that. There's not a malicious bone in her body."
Like another West Virginia woman whose life was turned upside-down by her experiences in Iraq, Jessica D. Lynch, who enlisted, Private England joined the Army Reserve because she wanted money for college and the chance to see the world outside her small town.
And just as Jessica Lynch's rescue from Iraqi troops became one of the biggest stories of the war, the story of the Abu Ghraib photographs has attracted hordes of news reporters to tiny Fort Ashby, a one-stoplight town in the West Virginia Panhandle that is perhaps best known for its history as an outpost in the French and Indian War.
Exhausted by the stream of reporters knocking on their door, the Englands fled today.
"They needed a vacation," Private England's best friend, Destiny Goin, said."We're not going talk about this today."
Lynndie Rana England was born in 1982 in Kentucky, where her father worked for a railroad company. The company transferred him to its station in Cumberland, Md., when she was 2. So the family moved to Fort Ashby, 13 miles south.
By all accounts, the family was extremely close. Lynndie and her siblings, an older sister and younger brother, spent much time together hunting, camping, fishing and swimming.
Her parents called her a tomboy, eager to prove that she was as tough and athletic as the guys. She played a mean center field in softball, her father, Kenneth, said on Wednesday in an interview. But she sometimes found it difficult to kill animals when they went hunting.
"I don't think she ever got a deer," Mrs. England, 44, said. "I think she went just because she wanted to be outside, and wanted to be with me."
In high school, her parents said, she was a good student, though she was not in the honor society, as her friend Destiny was. But she yearned to go to college, wanting to become a "stormchaser," the kind of meteorologist who does not simply study bad weather, but immerses herself in the middle of it.
Her parents say they had enough money to help her pay for college. But Private England, 21, insisted on doing it by herself. So she joined a local unit of the Army Reserve, the 372nd, in Cresaptown, Md., to obtain college benefits from the military.
"I told her I didn't want her to do it," Mrs. England said. "But she said, `Mom, I'm going to turn 18 in a month, and I'll just sign up anyway.' She could be like that."
After high school, she worked at a chicken-processing plant and at the nearby IGA supermarket. Then, in March 2002, on what seemed almost like a whim to some of her friends, she married an old friend who worked with her at the supermarket, James L. Fike. The couple were divorced, though they remain on friendly terms, Mrs. England said in interviews this week.
"It was like, one day, she was just married," Mrs. Shoemaker-Davis said. "She walked up to me at the 7-Eleven and said, `See what I did.' They had just gone to the courthouse and did it."
While in Iraq, members of the 372nd say, Private England became romantically involved with another man implicated in the abuse scandal, Specialist Charles A. Graner. Military officials say she is pregnant and has been sent to Fort Bragg, N.C.
She has not been charged, as Specialist Graner and five other members of the 372nd have. But military investigators have called her a suspect in the abuse inquiry and continue to question her.
In Fort Ashby, the Englands have kept their yellow ribbons that signify a soldier overseas pinned to their front stoop, though Private England is now in the United States. Inside, a Christmas tree decorated with red, white and blue lights and glass bulbs will remain up until she returns home.
"She called me in January and said, `Mom, something bad has happened, but don't worry about it,' " Mrs. England recounted. "Of course, that only made me worry more. But nothing could have prepared me for this."
The Englands learned of the photographs in a particularly jarring way. The couple had just returned from a turkey-hunting trip last week when they received a message from a co-worker of Kenneth, that Lynndie's picture had been on "60 Minutes II" on CBS-TV.
The next morning, Mrs. England brewed herself a pot of coffee, snapped on CNN and there, playing over and over and over again, were Private England and the Iraqi prisoners. Mrs. England put a hand to her mouth, steadied herself and said aloud, "Oh my god."
Mrs. England says she has spoken to her daughter since then, but has learned few details. Private England has not told her that she is pregnant, and she has said the Army has refused to give her a lawyer.
Mrs. England worries that war, Iraq and Abu Ghraib have changed her daughter forever. The girl who ran into thunderstorms ducked for cover when lightning crashed outside her window recently and thought she was hearing mortar fire, her mother said.
"Some times you think you can deal with anything," Mrs. England said. "And then you find you can't deal with what you thought you could. I don't know if everything she once wanted has changed."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company