Accused of abuse, soldier goes from patriot to pariah

Crisis In Iraq

May 09, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BUCKINGHAM, Va. - Before he was charged with abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II displayed a patriotism that bordered on zealotry.

He took American flags from wherever the 372nd Military Police Company was conducting a mission, inscribed them with his location that day - Al-Hillah, Camp Arifjan - folded them into tidy squares, and mailed them in plastic bags to his wife.

He responded in earnest handwritten letters to the fan mail he got from schoolchildren near his home in the central Virginia countryside.

He once told a fellow guard at the state prison near here that he was so eager to get to Iraq that he would volunteer to go if the Army didn't see fit to mobilize his unit.

"My spirits have been very high," Frederick, 37, wrote in a letter to his mother in July, two months after his arrival in Iraq. "I just go with the flow and look out for No. 1."

But his self-assurance appeared to crack the moment the 372nd took over guard duties at Abu Ghraib in October. He worked a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift seven days a week and slept in a 7-foot-by-9-foot cell that shook during mortar attacks on the prison. In the first two weeks, he wrote in a letter to his parents, the inmates under his supervision swelled from 400 to 800.

Nothing about Abu Ghraib, infamous under Saddam Hussein as a site of torture, rape and murder, resembled the medium-security prison in rural Virginia where Frederick had worked as a guard since 1996.

In a November letter to his father, he grappled with his feelings about the "hands on" techniques the soldiers used to discipline prisoners.

The inmates "told me that is very humiliating," he writes of the practice of placing them on their knees with noses against the wall. "A lot end up crying. Sometimes I feel sorry for them but then I realize that they are the reason I am here and the feeling goes away."

Interviews with Frederick's family, former co-workers and childhood acquaintances, and a review of several dozen letters to his relatives paint a portrait of a small-town man of limited horizons, lost in a chaotic, unfamiliar environment with few rules and little oversight.

Frederick is both the highest-ranking soldier to be charged by the military in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and the reason it has become so public a spectacle. His family's decision to take their son's story to CBS News thrust a military secret onto the international airwaves and has handed the Bush administration one of its biggest public relations problems since the start of the Iraqi conflict.

His working-class family - his father is a retired miner and amateur stock-car racer, his mother a retired secretary - is waging a public campaign to portray their son as a scapegoat of military intelligence officers and civilian contractors who goaded him and his subordinates to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation.

They launched a Web site, www.freechipfrederick.com, Friday.

But all the hoopla belies a sober reality: Frederick faces an almost-certain court-martial and what his attorney has told him may be seven years in prison for his role in the horrific torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.

His subordinates

Frederick commanded a half-dozen reservists and 70 Iraqi guards in a section of Abu Ghraib, where military intelligence officers and civilian contractors interrogated inmates.

Several of the American soldiers under his direct supervision can be seen in photographs grinning and flashing thumbs-up signs beside naked Iraqi prisoners. A recently published photo shows him sitting on a prisoner - he wrote in an e-mail to his family last week that this was a "last resort" to "protect [the prisoner] from injuring himself or others."

Hearing transcripts cited in a New Yorker magazine article describe Frederick striking a prisoner in the ribcage without provocation. Matthew Carl Wisdom, a reservist quoted in the transcripts, said that as Frederick walked away from two naked Iraqis forced to simulate oral sex, Frederick said, "Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds."

Unlike most of the reservists facing charges, he was no youngster. He had been in the Reserves for 20 years.

Several people who knew Frederick in Garrett County in Western Maryland, where he spent the first 29 years of his life, say that he could be aloof and arrogant, quick with put-downs and pranks, and at times deaf to the emotional effects of his words. But the lanky, 6-foot-tall Frederick was always more bark than bite - no one recalls any violent tendencies.

"He'd just joke around," recalled Gary Wildman, who trained with him in a National Guard company before Frederick joined the Reserves. "But it was never to an extreme."

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