Iraqi prisons, continued

Following our post on the alleged detention of children by US forces in Iraq, we received an email from John Heacock, who served for nearly a year in Iraq with the 267th MP Company from the Tennessee National Guard. With his permission, we reprint here in full.

I hopped a link from Alterman’s blog and saw your publicizing of alleged children imprisoned and abused in Iraq. I spent almost a full year at the main prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, which is near Um Qasr on the SE Iraq-Kuwaiti border.

There was a special compound for kids, defined as younger than 18, mainly those who were picked up with adults (generally relatives like Dads) for crimes or suspicions of crimes. I think the # peaked at around 60 or so.

I can’t comment on any alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib, except to note that my unit’s encounters with the 320th MP of PA (4 of whom got nailed for abuse early in the war) and the MD MPs now being pilloried were consistent with their reputation as unprofessional, hyper-aggressive cowboys (and cowgirls). The one common denominator I’ve seen among too aggressive guards and MPs is fear: the soldiers who don’t have the skills and tools to handle the prisoners with confidence resort to over-the-top intimidation to deter conflict. These yahoos appeared definitely afraid of the prisoners. The claim that a child was doused with water, driven around in the cold, and brought before his Dad to get information, is, sadly, quite believable. At the same time, I know as many soldiers who would have halted such actions if they’d known about it. Like any other work setting, people figure out who’s ethical and who’s a psycho pretty quickly, and adjust their behavior accordingly in their presence.

(BTW, you should also look into the story of the 18-year-old Iraqi girl who was held at Abu G for kissing her husband in public, after self-appointed morality police brought her there (her husband, of course, wasn’t held). It made the front page of Stars & Stripes. A textbook case of nobody having a plan, and nobody taking responsibility in the bureaucracy.)

Getting back to the kids: for the most part, the kids were treated better than the other prisoners. The majority spoke some level of English, which makes things easier for both guards and prisoners, and reduces miscommunication, confusion, and de-humanization. One of the biggest problems was adults trying to claim that they were under 18 so they could be held in the kid’s compound. They had different reasons for lying about their age, and none of them were good. The 2nd worst issue was the “Lord of the Flies” element of the kids forming groups/gangs/cliques, and conflicts between them, although flare-ups manifested themselves more in spats over food or cigarettes, or rough play during soccer games. The Syrian kids stuck together really well, causing some complaints and intimidation among the other, mainly Iraqi, kids.

Some of the kids clearly suffered from depression or other emotional problems, which shouldn’t be too surprising, given their circumstances. The guards had enough trouble maintaining order and safety in the camp, and lack the ability, training, or time to diagnose and treat emotional problems.

This goes for adult prisoners too: I remember one guy we nicknamed ?Osama? because he looked like Bin Laden. He was kept in our high-threat detention area, nicknamed “Iraqitraz,” which was actually nicer than it sounds: well-shaded, individual cells for those who’d tried to escape or attack guards or other prisoners (the latter being much more common than the former). Osama was clearly messed up: catatonic/psychotic, occasionally violent. The doctors tried to drug him up with what they had, but I don’t think they had the right meds. I talked with one doctor about him, and they were trying to find a medical facility or family to take him, but the doc predicted that he’d just be taken to Baghdad and let out somewhere. (Which, BTW, is how prisoners were released by us: load them on buses, drive them a few hundred miles away, give them $5 each, and drive off).

Back to the kids: I remember trying to see if we could get books or writing materials because some of the kids complained about being bored, and I suggested an informal school, which they liked. The people at the top of our pecking order were either the MI people, who were more interested in schmoozing with the captured Iraqi officers (a far cry from Abu Ghraib!), or the MP Battalion leadership, who avoided at all costs entering the camp or doing any real work. It fell on deaf ears.

The problems with the treatment of the kids at Camp Bucca was about the same as the flaws with the other prisoners: lack of a policy regarding standards of guilt or length of imprisonment, bureaucratic indifference, laziness of those of high rank whose job it was to process prisoners, scarce resources, and conflicting guidance from above. Consequently, we had hundreds if not thousands of prisoners that we didn’t know why they were being held, who would never be convicted of a crime under any civilized standard of proof, and who spent more time awaiting a hearing than they would have been held in prison if convicted. A typical example: men held for months for stealing gasoline or butting in lines, when their sentence would have been 2 weeks or 30 days. I once asked the sole JAG attorney (a 1st Lt., BTW, the lowest rank for JAG) why we weren’t following the Geneva Convention rules about hearings and length of incarceration, and he expressed shock; when I told him he could go to either the main camp or Iraqitraz to see the shortcomings for himself, he told me that the camp commander wouldn’t let him into either site. It’s hard to do your job ensuring that the military follows its rules when you can’t even see what’s going on.

I hope you are wrong in thinking the shit will really hit the fan when facts about how kids were treated get out, but I’m afraid that you are right. I hope that the story of the kid at Abu Ghraib is the only incident. We tried to treat our kids as well as we could, and keep them safe from other prisoners and each other, and did a B+ job. The fact that the Army doesn’t even admit holding juveniles is a telling reflection of how clueless it was about having some plan or philosophy of imprisonment.

–John Heacock


Comments: 16


Reading John Heacock’s comments quite frankly makes me feel just a little proud that we have some intelligent compassionate people over there. Not proud of why they’re there, but that when put into that situation they are able to retain their humanity.

I hope history is as kind to them as it is brutal to the cabal that put them there.


That was very sad. Very, very sad. He should have been at home, as should the Iraqi kids he was watching. I am waiting for Bush to make some jokes about this like he did about the WMDs.


I have to agree with Anna in Cairo – that was just very sad. Nothing extraordinary, no abuse, no wild tales. Just the sadness of the indifference he saw. That is what Bush has brought us to. I admire the soldiers like John who try their hardest to make things around them just a little bit better. But it still made me sad to read.


P.S. I would give John an “A” for Effort, even if he thinks it was only a B+ outcome.


Thank you, John Heacock, for the first person testimony.


Eyewitness to ‘Iraqitraz’

Sadly No! posts the text of an email from from John Heacock, “who served for nearly a year in Iraq with the 267th MP Company from the Tennessee National Guard.” It has very credible-sounding details about the treatment of under-18 detainees…


Thanks for posting that and to John for writing it. Men like that give me hope that we haven’t completly lost what is good about being an American.


Well, I for one never thought there was any chance that “we haven’t completly lost what is good about being an American.” That’s just mindless hyperbole.

John’s letter sheds a lot more light on this topic than any number of opinion pieces or seymour hersch lectures. (Those are important, too, but they shed a lot less light.) John’s assessment of a “lack of policy” is pretty damning nonetheless.

Whatever happened to the Army to make it abandon “hope is not a plan” as a philosophy?


I’ve just been reading excerpts of the Taguba report @ eschaton (via boingboing), and am having a hard time dealing with the whole, you know, RAPE thing. I want to get down on my knees and thank John Heacock for simply still being a recognizeable human being.


I read a study recently which found that people with high but-easily-threatened self-esteem tend to be the ones who get violent. That would perfectly fit the situation here: People who’ve been artifically required to have high self-esteem (guards must be dominant and confident in their interactions) but who are actually scared would be at precisely that unstable node that leads to violence. (People with high-but-stable or consistently low self-esteem are much less likely to get violent.)

That doesn’t excuse any of what has happened, but it might be useful to know in order to improve training and screening so that things like this are less likely to happen again.


Seb, thanks for the original posts; genuine reporting of the highest order.

John Heacock, thank-you for serving your country with such compassion and intelligence, and most of all for being so generous in sharing your experiences with us.


Thanks for the post.
It’s good to know that there is humanity and compassion alive in a horrible situation.



this articule almost made me puke,thank god the whole world is not amerika,why your news media hasnt covered this is just simply a reflection of your holier than tho social/cultural
you dont want to hear it and when you do you go strait into all sort of subtle denial,take a look at yourselves


Dont expect too much from Americans,we are just other people,but the diference being we have such a vast military revolving door complex.
Bush and team are there because they new they could get away with it and it hasn’t unraveled the whole way yet. I have seen the vidios this administration is holding back particulary the ones depicting the sodomisation and the screems of the children.
After reading “Farewell America” it did become plain to me that America has been “sick” since we failed to solve the Kennedy Assasination even after all this time.


Pak Love, I’d see a doctor about that stomache of yours if this article made you puke. You should see some the self-congratulatory garbage that passes itself off as news in the american media. Why the abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers (not just in Iraq) doesn’t get more coverage is a question much on the minds of many americans. Though, sadly, not as many as it should be.
Why isn’t anyone saying that voting for Bush or throwing away your vote on Nader is the same as saying you don’t care what happened at these places? Because, let’s face it, that IS the bottom line here.


stories like this must be told. It’s already spreading in alternate newssources and mainstream press hopefully won’t be too far behind. they just aren’t first or too believable on thier own anymore.

the internet helps immensly. i hope the international community stands strong against this admin, that could be how this administration is held accountable for some of what’s happened.

these last 4 yrs have been a harsh lesson. to begin with this admin wasn’t voted in. i just hope the lesson we needed, has been learned. never in a million yrs, did i suspect this ‘imperialist’ stuff could happen.

john’s personal accounting was very helpful and couragous. thank you for filling in some blanks. i hope you stay safe and all those like you, continue helping where you can and come home soon.


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