Alyssa Peterson was a returned Mormon missionary when she joined the Army in 2001. After earning a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military scholarship, she went to the military's Defense Language Institute. She was reported to have had a unique ability to learn foreign languages, having mastered Dutch before she even left on her mission to the Netherlands. She quickly learned Arabic and was then sent to Iraq to conduct interrogations and translate enemy documents, serving with a military intelligence unit. Friends, family and fellow soldiers described her as "genuine, sincere and just plain sweet."
Peterson was assigned to the prison at Tal-Afar in northwestern Iraq. Within a few weeks, on Sept. 15, 2003, she died from "non-hostile weapons discharge," according to Army records. Peterson became just the third woman soldier to be killed in Iraq. Her father told co-workers the day before she died that he had a premonition she was in trouble. But there is more to the story than the Army has revealed.
Unsatisfied with the Army's explanation, a newspaper reporter from Flagstaff, Ariz., filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Last week the documents came. The reporter, Kevin Elston, says, "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."
Peterson was reassigned to monitoring Iraqi guards and sent to suicide-prevention training. Nonetheless, within a matter of days, she killed herself with her own rifle.
Interviews with fellow soldiers who knew Peterson shed some light on what might have prompted her action. Kayla Williams, another returned Mormon missionary, has written a book about her experience in Iraq. Williams was also brought into "the cage" where she saw fellow soldiers hitting a naked prisoner in the face. She said, "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." Other soldiers later told her that the old rules no longer applied. This was a different world and a new kind of war.
Interviewed by CNN in September of 2006, Williams said, "What I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate." After a couple of these sessions, she told a superior she thought they were violating the Geneva Convention and would never do it again.
What happened to other prisoners was much worse. At the request of the White House, U.S. servicemen and women, contract interrogators and CIA employees have beaten, maimed, sodomized and killed prisoners held in custody by the United States. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and in secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, prisoners have been electrically shocked, water boarded, starved, beaten and frozen to death, suffocated with hoods, hung upside down until dead and had their flesh seared off with chemicals. More than 100 Afghan and Iraqi prisoners have died in this manner while in U.S. custody.
Williams went on, "It also made me think, '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. I did protest but only to the person in charge, and I did not file a report up the chain of command."
Note: Brian Moench is a physician at LDS Hospital.