Reservist's memoir tells of service at Abu Ghraib

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2007 - 9:33 PM

As chief nurse at the prison's hospital, she focused on human connections.

When Deanna Germain arrived at the dank, barren compound of now infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, she had never heard of it before. But upon landing in Baghdad, the Army Reserve nurse from Blaine got a hint of how bleak it would be.

"Welcome," said the sergeant who greeted her. "You've accepted the worst assignment in Iraq."

Within weeks, the Abu Ghraib prison would be known worldwide because of photos that showed U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, and her new home would become synonymous with problems in Iraq.

Germain, 56, who traded her comfy suburban home for an 8-by-12-foot cell in Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison, heard of the alleged abuse in an e-mail from her sister in April 2004.

Germain, a lieutenant colonel, was horrified and shocked, then demoralized and angry at the abuses, most of which occurred months before she arrived.

The abuse at Abu Ghraib takes up only a short chapter in Germain's book, "Reaching Past the Wire," due this month from Borealis Books.

That's not because Germain is trying to downplay the incidents, but because they were only a small part of her daily life, a strange existence in which she risked her life and sacrificed her family ties while putting in long hours trying to save the enemy, some of whom were insurgents, and possibly even members of al Al-Qaida.

Germain didn't know any of the soldiers involved, nor had she seen any such abuse. But Abu Ghraib, with 4,500 prisoners and perhaps 2,000 revolving military and medical personnel, is like a small town. Everyone was affected.

Within days, news media from all over the world began filing through the prison and hospital, where she was chief nurse.

"They told us not to talk to the media," said Germain. "They told the prisoners not to talk, they told us not to tell the prisoners what was going on. We'd look at them. They'd look at us, like monkeys in a cage."

Saddam's graveyard

Germain vividly recalls driving into Abu Ghraib. The high fences. The guard towers. The razor wire. Inside the gates were buildings crumbled by mortars. Everything was gray, not a spot of color anywhere. A horrible stench permeated the grounds; rumors were that it was the smell of bodies buried nearby, victims of Saddam's torture chambers, compounded by more recent deaths of the sick and wounded.

Shortly before Germain arrived, Abu Ghraib had been hammered by mortars from insurgents. Her new colleagues were just recovering from the carnage. The hospital was a ramshackle building; medical supplies were limited.

Germain eventually moved into her "home," a small cell with a steel-bar door and a small window in a place known as "The Shadows," for the ghosts believed to inhabit the prison. The last occupant was a victim of Saddam's regime, and he had scrawled a message on the wall in Arabic:

"Mercy is from God, indeed. It is not from the tyrant human being."I signed on because I wanted to take care of U.S. soldiers and Marines," said Germain. "But here I was in this Godforsaken place. I was a mother and grandmother and I was carrying a weapon to go to the bathroom. I probably didn't look like a soldier."

Tending the enemy

Not long after Germain arrived, Marines burst into the prison hospital with one of their wounded. Germain and others worked frantically, and futilely, to save him.

Minutes later an Arab man, Mohammed, came in with a bullet in the abdomen, and Germain and her colleagues went back to work, knowing it was quite possibly the man who had killed the Marine.

Mohammed was the beginning of the strange deal that medical personnel had with prisoner/patients.

"We did the best we could with what we had," said Germain. "That caring is part of being a nurse."

At Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Germain had saved both victims and perpetrators in shootings in the same night. This was different, being asked to save enemy combatants.

"It was a challenge at first," she said. "I didn't want to know anything about them, or what they did."

Eventually, she got to know about their wives and children, perhaps where they were from. But they never talked about their fight against Americans.

Because she was older, at first prisoners were wary. But many came to trust her and even care about her.

"One man took days to muster up the courage to speak to me," Germain said. "Finally, he said, 'Why are you doing this? Go home to your husband.'"

Facing abuse allegations

Germain was only supposed to serve a short stint, but like many others involved in the war, her service was extended. In total, she spent 18 months in Kuwait and Iraq.

Some of the worst of that time was spent contemplating how war affects people.

The accusations of prisoner abuse "were really hard and demoralizing," said Germain. "There was a lot of anger that a few people could do that" and taint the selfless work of others. "I was angry at those who did it. I won't defend them -- in fact, just the opposite."

Yet, she said, "It didn't surprise me. War is so ugly when you get thrown into it. [New recruits] would come here and say, 'You people are living like animals.' You do what you have to survive."

It's not surprising, she said, that some start to behave like animals.

And there were moments when common humanity raised them above the war. Sometimes they laughed and sang together. They had wheelchair races and watched the move "Jackass."

Some of the patients were not detainees, but brought to the prison for convenience or for petty crimes. Two of those who got close to Germain wrote a letter when they left her care. It said in part:

"My greetings are purer than rose perfume to all the people who shared with me the days of sadness and lessened the panic of the prison. Remember me when the bird warbles and when the morning sun rises. ... We may not meet again but we may meet in memory. The most beautiful memories I have in prison hospital of Abu-Ghraib."

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702

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