W.Va. reservist caught up in a storm of controversy

Soldier: Lynndie England's parents say they're convinced she was not part of any abuse at Abu Ghraib and isn't getting a fair shake from the military.

Crisis In Iraq

May 06, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

FORT ASHBY, W.Va. - Lynndie England loved a good storm.

Growing up in West Virginia, in a quiet crossroads of a town called Fort Ashby, she would seek them out. During tornado warnings, her mother recalls, she would have to drag her daughter back inside the house. Meteorology, her former teachers say, was the career she wanted to pursue - specifically, as a storm chaser.

Now, the storm has found England. The 21-year-old Army reservist is perhaps the most visible character in the controversy over the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison: the thumbs-up, pixieish, T-shirted soldier, smiling, pointing and posing for the camera with naked and humiliated Iraqi inmates.

Terrie England, still waiting yesterday to hear whether her daughter was going to be charged criminally, has seen the photographs more times than she can stand. "It's all over the news, but we're not hearing anything new. They just keep showing the pictures," she said. "How many times do I have to see those pictures?"

Sitting in their living room, Lynndie England's parents say they are convinced she was not involved in any interrogations, that she was not part of any abuse and that she is not getting a fair shake from the military she loved.

Since January, they say, she has been asking for legal representation and gotten none. For the past month, she has been restricted to the Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C., awaiting word on what repercussions she faces for, in their view, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being photographed there.

They have not seen her since just before Christmas, when she was home on two weeks' leave. Sick, tired, coughing and about 25 pounds lighter than when she left, she spent most of the time sleeping, they say.

An independent sort known to speak her mind, Lynndie England joined the Reserves while she was a junior at Frankfort High School in Ridgely, W.Va. She was known for doing her work, causing no trouble, and for wearing combat boots and camouflage fatigues to school. After her junior year, while most students were on vacation or at summer jobs, she went to basic training.

She was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., for additional training after graduation and then came back home, working nights at a chicken-processing plant until, as a member of the Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company, she was called to duty.

Her best friend, Destiny Goin, said they sat and cried for two hours before she left for Iraq.

She stayed in touch regularly - with her parents, younger brother and her married sister, with Goin and with an ailing great-aunt in eastern Kentucky. She would send photos - Lynndie on a Humvee, Lynndie on a camel, Lynndie with a stray cat she befriended in Iraq - and she would call when she could.

Back home, members of her unit - sent to help provide security at a prison infamous under Saddam Hussein for its brutality - were becoming hometown heroes. Their pictures were posted on walls of honor at the courthouse in Keyser and the Wal-Mart in LaVale.

But in January, the phone call from Baghdad came: "I just want you to know that there might be some trouble," Terrie England recalled her daughter saying.

Like the thunderstorms Lynndie England used to watch from mountaintops, the extent of the trouble took some time - months, in fact - to gather and grow before the downpour came, with reports on 60 Minutes II and in The New Yorker about abuses at the prison.

The way the Englands see it, what is happening to their daughter is like what happened with Pfc. Jessica Lynch - only in reverse. Both were from economically stagnant small towns in West Virginia. Both joined the service soon after high school, hoping to better their opportunities and see the world. Both found themselves - Lynch with a maintenance division, England as an administrative worker - in situations that went far beyond their prescribed job duties.

And, just as government and news media accounts of Lynch's capture and rescue portrayed her as more of a hero than the actual circumstances merited, the portrayal of their daughter is painting her as more of a villain than they say the facts, once known, may merit.

"Just like what happened with that Lynch girl, this is getting blown out of proportion," said Lynndie's father, Kenneth England, "but in a negative rather than a positive way."

`I just can't believe this'

Lynndie England saw joining the Reserves as a way to see the world beyond Fort Ashby, and a chance to further her education.

"She loves tornadoes," her father said. "She wanted to get enough money to go to college and be a meteorologist."

"Twister was her favorite movie," said her sister, Jessica Klinestiver.

Lynndie England was born in Ashland, Ky., and moved to Fort Ashby when she was 2. As a child, she liked to play softball, ride bikes and go swimming in Patterson Creek. She was hooked on The X-Files.

She would go along on family hunting trips, and while she shot turkey and squirrels, she declined to shoot deer.

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