Lack of training led to Bagram abuse, soldiers say
Guards at the U.S. detention center at Bagram Air Base didn't know whether Habibullah had anything to do with terrorist attacks on the...
WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. — Guards at the U.S. detention center at Bagram Air Base didn't know whether Habibullah had anything to do with terrorist attacks on the United States, but they knew he was defiant.
On a cold December day in 2002, Spc. Brian Cammack tried to feed the Afghan clergyman in his late 20s a piece of bread by cramming it into his mouth. Habibullah's hands were chained above his head, but he pushed the bread out of his mouth with his tongue and spit at Cammack.
Cammack lost his temper and kneed the chained prisoner in the leg, cursed at him, put a cloth sack back over his head and stormed out of his cell.
Later, when Cammack heard Habibullah "rustling around" in his chains, he thought nothing of it. When he eventually checked on the prisoner, Cammack said: "I took the sack off his head and his eyes looked strange."
Habibullah soon died of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot dislodged by the beatings he'd received. He was one of two Afghan detainees known to have died of beatings at Bagram; the other was a man named Dilawar. Habibullah and Dilawar, like many Afghans, use one name.
Years later, in his Kentucky home, Cammack said he knew it was hard to understand what had happened in 2002 at the main U.S. detention camp in Afghanistan.
Cammack was a specialist in the 377th Military Police Company, a reserve unit based in Cincinnati. Many of his buddies were small-town police officers or, like him, blue-collar laborers. He was one of four soldiers from the unit who agreed to interviews.
No one at Bagram, Cammack said, had any idea what he was doing. Senior officers who came through the Bagram Collection Point paid no attention to the privates and sergeants who, Cammack said, were slowly losing control of themselves in the face of the war in Afghanistan.
Those on indoor guard duty spent their days surrounded by Afghans, Pakistanis and Arabs with beards and foreign faces. To many of the men from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, all the prisoners looked like Osama bin Laden. The more combative detainees spat or screamed in languages that no one but the handful of translators understood.
The soldiers who did guard rotation at the front gate of the air base saw the aftermath of vehicles hitting nearby minefields: men, usually Afghans, and pieces of men carried in bloody heaps in the backs of pickups.
Soldiers who broke down and abused detainees were charged with crimes, but their senior leaders never were held accountable, Cammack said.
Cammack and his fellow military police were trained to subdue detainees by striking them just below the knee, which hit the common peroneal nerve and caused paralyzing pain.
The problem, Cammack said, is that in the absence of supervision, the same detainees were hit, over and over, by every guard shift.
"The first person does two [knee strikes], the next one does two and then after a while, he's unresponsive," as in dead, Cammack said.
Dilawar, in his mid-30s, died a week after Habibullah from what a military pathologist's report termed "blunt-force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary-artery disease."
As the muscle tissue in his legs was badly damaged, the pathologist said, protein from the muscle was released into the bloodstream, which can cause kidney failure. Dilawar's urine was brown.
It's not clear from court-martial transcripts how many soldiers struck Habibullah and Dilawar. One soldier, former Spc. Willie Brand, told military investigators that he struck Dilawar "somewhere in the area of 37 times."
"These two guys died, but I probably kneed 20 or so [detainees] total, and I just can't differentiate between the rest of the [detainees] and the ones who died," Brand testified.
The U.S. military never produced evidence showing that either Habibullah, an Islamic mullah, or clergyman, or Dilawar, a taxi driver, had any connection to the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Cammack said every guard he knew at Bagram struck a detainee at some point. Sgt. James Boland, a retired guard from the Army Reserve's 377th MP Company from Cincinnati, said from his Ohio home that Brand "was no different from anyone else in that unit. ... Willie Brand was just the one who talked with the investigators. Everybody else was pretty closed-mouth about it."
Boland and Cammack said their unit was deployed without much training.
In a sworn statement to military investigators, Capt. Christopher Beiring, who commanded the 377th, said that during pre-deployment training at Fort Dix, N.J., "They had us notionalize a lot of equipment. That is basically pretending that you have equipment like batons, shields, etc." When the 377th arrived in Afghanistan, he said, it had only a three- or four-day overlap with the unit it was replacing.
Beiring initially was charged with dereliction of duty and making false statements in connection with the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar, but those charges were dropped. He was reprimanded, however.
His enlisted men also were charged with crimes, but no one above the company level has been held accountable for what happened at Bagram in December 2002.
"It's unfortunate that some people pay a price and others don't," Beiring said.
His sentiments were spelled out on the U.S. Armed Forces Reserves license plate on the red Ford Taurus parked in his driveway: "BETRYD."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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