FORT HOOD, Texas – Lynndie England, 22, pauses for a long time as she considers how she turned from a chicken factory worker into the symbol of America’s abuse of Iraqi detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
A pained smile flashes across the face made famous across the world when she was pictured holding a naked Iraqi prisoner by a leash. Then the U.S. Army reservist blames her downfall on Charles Graner, the abuse ringleader and father of her 11-month-old child, Carter.
“Let’s start the list: I guess first and foremost is he tricked me into believing he was a good person, and that he used me,” she said in a one-hour interview with Reuters before her incarceration. “I wouldn’t be in this mess if I didn’t know him. (Second), for abandoning me when I was pregnant, and for abandoning Carter.”
England was sentenced on Tuesday to three years in prison for her part in the abuse scandal that sparked worldwide outrage. Graner, now serving a 10-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth prison, testified at England’s trial that he asked her to hold the leash he put on a mentally ill Iraqi.
It was also Graner who built a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners that was shown in another of the series of photographs of abuse that emerged in 2004 and severely damaged U.S. international prestige.
Months before the photos, company commanders had ordered England to end her romantic relationship.
“In a sense they knew him as being just an older man that was out to just use me, I guess. And I was blinded to that and I think they were trying to help me,” England said. “I was just stupid enough to continue to follow Graner instead of listening to them.”
In a conversation as she pushed a stroller with Carter — the spitting image of his father — England’s mother, Terrie, said she had also warned about getting involved as Graner, 37, was so much older, but she said Lynndie was smitten and her advice was ignored.
England, who spent most of her life in a small town in West Virginia with one brother and one sister, granted the interview this week on the condition that it be published only after the conclusion of her trial.
Her military attorney, Capt. Jonathan Crisp, occasionally deflected questions on issues such as her personal responsibility that he thought might jeopardize her chances of post-trial clemency.
In court, Crisp portrayed England as suffering severe difficulties in expressing herself verbally. In the interview she related her ideas fluently with a Kentucky accent but sometimes paused for 10 seconds or more to think.
The best-known face of the Abu Ghraib scandal wore a cap bearing the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and a short-sleeved T-shirt that revealed part of a tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon with a U.S. flag in the background. Her calf bore a tattoo of a scorpion, symbol of her astrological sign of Scorpio.
England struck up a romance with Graner less than a year after she married her first lover, whom she has since divorced. A former civilian prison guard portrayed at trial as a charismatic yet sadistic man, Graner turned on the charm as their unit prepared to deploy to Iraq in early 2003.
“He’ll compliment you on every little thing and he’ll make you feel good about yourself,” said England, who laughed and smiled on occasion during the interview and looked chubbier than in the notorious photos. “He’d always act like a gentleman, opening doors and pulling out chairs.”
She said that early in their relationship, Graner would sometimes blare bluegrass music from his room, apparently knowing that sounds of the fiddle and the banjo might lure the Kentucky-born England from down the hall. “He would change certain little things and he’d pick up certain little things that I liked just to lure me in more,” she said.
England joined the Army reserves in late 1999, partially inspired by war films ranging from older John Wayne pictures to Delta Force movies starring Chuck Norris. “I liked all of it: going out and training, getting dirty; it’s a lot of new stuff,” she said.
The young reservist was excited when she heard rumors in 2002 that her unit might be deployed abroad. “At the time, I was all excited. I wanted to go and see new places,” she said. When she was mobilized in early 2003, her reaction was more muted.
“Sure I was scared, everyone was,” said England who worked as an administrative clerk in the prison, then at the rank of specialist.
By the time the Army reserve unit moved to Abu Ghraib in October 2003, her romance with Graner was in full swing, so the administrative clerk frequently visited him in the most secure section of the prison where she had no official function. Because Graner worked the night shift and she worked during the day, he was often on duty.
“One of the first things I noticed was that a lot of the prisoners were naked,” she said adding that a captain who showed her around initially said such sights were normal.
England described Iraqi detainees as screaming while being tortured in showers. Although nothing could be seen due to the sheets covering the bars, the sounds were easily heard.
“I left. I couldn’t take it any more. And I still have nightmares about all the screaming,” she said. “Not only them screaming, but soldiers screaming at them; hearing the interrogations going on.”
Eventually such instances no longer struck her as unusual. “After going over so many times, it’s kind of an everyday thing that happens, I guess,” England said.
England knows her abuse pictures will appear in the history books about the American war in Iraq. Yet she appeared at a loss for words when asked if images such as her in front of a pyramid of naked Iraqis captured her essence.
“It’s not me. Deployment changes you, I guess,” she said after a series of long pauses.
One day in the future, England will have to explain to her son, with whom she has lived over the past year while awaiting trial, what mom and dad did during the war. She said she did not know what she would say but added that leaving her son — who will be cared for by her mother — was the hardest part of facing prison.
“I feel that if I didn’t get pregnant and the events did happen, it would be a lot less stressful on me,” she said. “The hardest part is leaving him.”