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Back from Abu Ghraib

We've read much - and seen too much - in the aftermath of 'interrogation techniques' reporting about what happened. Here is an assessment, with a different perspective, from someone who was at Abu Ghraib, about why it may have happened.

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May 23, 2004

Back from Abu Ghraib
Bourne psychiatrist tells of reforms in interrogation tactics he witnessed at the notorious Iraqi prison


He was sent to Iraq this spring to help mend the minds of American soldiers during a time of horrible violence.

Army Maj. Tony Dingmann shares his overseas experiences with his son's class at Bourne Middle School.
(Staff photo by STEVE HEASLIP)

He tried to convince soldiers it's not strange to endure sleepless nights when invisible strangers are trying to blow you up, and counseled contractors struggling to deal with the death all around them.

Bourne psychiatrist Tony Dingmann said he had never seen such dire need for mental health care.

Which made it all the more curious when military brass last month pulled the Cape doctor away from his battalion to work at a prison outside of Baghdad.

But within weeks, the entire world knew about Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison where Dingmann was deployed during the final month of his time in Iraq, and after his arrival he knew why Pentagon officials urgently wanted to make changes there.

A member of the National Guard's 118th Area Support Medical Battalion in Connecticut, Dingmann participated in the questioning of Iraqi and Syrian detainees.

Dingmann's arrival coincided with a military shakeup at the prison, including efforts to institute more humane standards in prisoner interrogations.

Before arriving at Abu Ghraib, he'd heard rumors of "ugliness" taking place there. But most of the American soldiers involved in the prisoner abuse scandal had been sent home, or were facing charges.

Many of the policies, he said, had changed, making the situation far different than the one last year in which military police allegedly physically and emotionally humiliated prisoners.

Dingmann - who would join an interrogator, analyst and translator for sessions to question prisoners - said he was impressed by the tenor of the interviews now.

Prisoners were offered tea and bottles of water. They were no longer forced to wear hoods. Isolation periods were limited to 30 days, and could only be extended by approval of commanders.

And the questioners, he said, always knew where the interview was headed three questions ahead of time, what information they were looking for, and how to get it.

"What they were doing was all on the up-and-up. And at the time, it seemed that's the way it had always been," he said. "But it definitely wasn't."

Trip through hell

Home now after three months in country, the doctor who counseled so many soldiers on how to deal with their feelings is sorting out his own.

Just like every other soldier over there, from the trigger-pullers to the truck drivers, he faced uncertainty every day.

The enemy is usually hidden. Gunfire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades seem to come out of nowhere.

By early April, fighting had become so fierce and widespread, Dingmann said, that he could barely get anyone to drive him the 12 miles from Baghdad International Airport to Abu Ghraib.

Helicopters weren't making the trip because of rising violence, and several convoys turned back when insurgent attacks made the trip nearly impossible.

When a convoy finally agreed to deliver Dingmann to the prison, on the day before Easter, it was like a nightmare.

For much of the trip, the seven-vehicle convoy zipped along the two-lane highway at speeds of 70 mph. They knew dangers could hide in any of the farmhouses they saw on the sides of the road.

As they slowed to navigate a blown-up stretch of road, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades began to rain over them.

One RPG screeched toward Dingmann's Humvee, leaving a swirling tail of clouds as it zipped between two of the vehicles.

American soldiers with grenade launchers and M-16s traded shots with the unseen combatants.

"You could see the bullets hitting the houses. There were kids playing in the front yard. And the amazing thing is the kids didn't even run away."

For miles, the sound of gunfire continued as the convoy remained under attack from house after house.

The convoy finally reached Abu Ghraib. One soldier in the convoy was shot. Dingmann never heard what happened to him.

"Stuck inside"

Dingmann said his first impressions of Saddam Hussein's old prison were how depressing it was.

And how tense.

A series of compounds and guard towers on roughly 180 acres west of Baghdad, the prison is like a city unto itself surrounded by a 20-foot wall.

Used for years to hold political prisoners of Saddam Hussein's regime, the infamous institution still bears numerous murals of the former Iraqi dictator.

Prisoners are kept in cellblock buildings, but thousands more are held in tent encampments on the grounds.

Last year, at the time of the prisoner abuses now coming to light, only about 300 MPs were managing nearly 8,000 prisoners.

Because of safety concerns, support units had a hard time reaching the prison to empty trash or change the portable toilets, Dingmann said. Rubble was everywhere. Wild dogs ran freely.

The prison was, and still is, an inviting target for insurgents, who are all too eager to lob mortars at the compound.

"We're stuck inside this prison, we can't get in or out," Dingmann recalls. "And the morale was bad ... You didn't even want to leave your building to go to the dining hall."

Assisting the interrogators

At that time, news of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib had not reached the media. But it was common knowledge among military personnel on duty there that something bad had occurred, and that a legal process was ongoing.

Dingmann knows he was there, in part, to help improve the way things were done at Abu Ghraib.

As a psychiatrist, he was asked to gauge prisoners' body language to keep a better handle on the questioning. Even though he usually didn't understand the language of the detainees, he'd still be able to trace awkward movements or nervous mannerisms, which might provide interrogators with clues to how trustworthy a prisoner's answers might be.

It was a tense time in Iraq. In towns like Fallujah, insurgents were killing American soldiers every day, and the intelligence community was looking for any information they could get to help on the ground immediately.

"A lot of it came back to shame," Dingmann said of the interviews. "Emotional shame, not physical shame. That had already been tried."

Pentagon officials last week declined to speak about specific changes in prisoner interrogations in Iraq since the earlier abuses at Abu Ghraib, or personnel changes.

But Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military is making efforts to improve practices at Abu Ghraib that are more humane and meet Geneva Convention standards, an international code governing wartime questioning of detainees.

"We are determined to bring it to those standards," Cassella said. "It is functioning to a much higher level now."

Keeping soldiers healthy

But Dingmann wasn't just focused on the enemy.

In the two years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Dingmann screened hundreds of National Guard soldiers to determine whether they were fit to handle the stresses of war.

Now that he's been there, he knows that some are suffering from that stress.

He handled counseling for soldiers who sought help, or those who had been ordered by commanders to be examined. He saw numerous soldiers who had their guns taken away from them because they'd threatened to hurt others or themselves. And he'd heard numerous stories of soldiers taking their own lives, "a lot more than people have any idea."

The Department of Defense documented 21 suicides among soldiers in Iraq in 2003, William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told Pentagon reporters earlier this year.

Dingmann said the military has tried to make mental health care a priority. Still, he adds, it remains a struggle to convince some soldiers and commanders of its importance.

"These are the people who aren't going to tell you they're having trouble sleeping or are depressed," he said. "Because then (other members of the unit) will start to think you don't have their backs ... It just isn't talked about."

Stigma about mental health remains a problem in the military, just as it does in American culture, concedes Col. Thomas Burke, program director of mental health policy for the assistant secretary for health affairs at the Pentagon.

But the military has made efforts to address mental health issues by bolstering combat stress units that work with soldiers at the front and establish clinics at headquarters around Iraq.

The most effective way of treating most cases of anxiety, Burke said, is to treat soldiers at the front. Or at the very least, the military tries to limit the delay before they are returned to action.

More than 95 percent of soldiers who required mental health care were able to return to the front so far, Burke said in a telephone interview last week.

"We try to convince commanders and soldiers that a soldier (enduring mental health problems) is a soldier with a problem, and not a problem soldier."

Dingmann said he has a new respect for the American military. In Iraq he was reminded that every member of the military plays a role in the larger mission, he notes.

And if they aren't able to fulfill that role, it hurts everyone.

In providing mental health care, Dingmann asked soldiers to look out for their buddies, to report any peculiar or frustrated behavior. And he encouraged commanders to watch for soldiers nearing a breaking point.

He saw morale drop during April, when insurgent attacks in Fallujah claimed more American lives than at any time since last year. Men and women in numerous units heard they would be staying in country longer than expected.

Just like a Humvee needs an occasional oil change, soldiers need to relieve stress, and sometimes that leads to aberrant behavior that can't be tolerated.

But even at Abu Ghraib, he said he can understand how it happened.

"Even the people who had been there two or three months, morale was bad," he said. "People that were living there for a year? They were frustrated, angry ...and they weren't educated about what they were supposed to do. Anger is going to come out of anybody."

Dingmann suggests every soldier deployed overseas should be prepared for the changes they'll face.

"Your pulse is going to go up, your stress level is going to rise," he said. "And you need to be able to say gently to them, 'It's going to get worse.' "

(Published: May 23, 2004)

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