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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For Veterans Day: The Soldier Who Killed Herself After Refusing to Take Part in Torture

The blood on the hands of Bush, Cheney and so many others (including certain members of the media) in the Iraq war  comes not just from soldiers and civilians killed in action but the many, many soldier suicides, in the war zone and back at home.  Recent reports find high levels remain, even with no U.S. fighting in Iraq and declining combat in Afghanistan.   For years I wrote about the suicides almost every week (when no one else was doing this).

But one of the most most wrenching stories concerned Spc. Alyssa Peterson, 27.  She was one of the first female soldiers to die in that conflict.  It was an unusually tough loss for U.S. forces there, as she was one of the few Arabic-speaking interrogators. She had been killed by a bullet from a rifle--11 years ago today.  A daily occurrence for U.S. soldiers in Iraq then, but in this case the rifle was her own.

She had committed suicide after refusing to take part in torture. Naturally, a cover-up followed.  From a 2009 dissertation by Alan Hensley, Ph.D.
Statements in the post-death investigation (United States Army, 2003) suggested the former Mormon missionary found the human intelligence (HUMINT) interrogation techniques used on Iraqi detainees repugnant and physically, psychologically, and emotionally distressing. Though Peterson was reassigned to other duties at Tal Afar after expressing her distress to her superiors, she continued to be assigned near the building in 9 which she was acutely aware that interrogations continued. She was repeatedly reprimanded for revealing to Iraqi civilians that she both understood and spoke Arabic.

In all of her actions, Peterson demonstrated a strong sense of empathy and altruism. While her personality domains and educational and occupational history would have been ideally suited for public affairs or humanitarian duties, her assigned military duties were immensely incongruent.

Many of her fellow soldiers noted in the weeks prior to her death, Peterson became distant and withdrawn. In the last few days prior to her death, her behavior changed markedly from troubled and withdrawn to pleasant. To professionals trained in suicide prevention, this behavior is an all-too-familiar indicator that, with her strategic coping mechanisms overwhelmed, Alyssa Peterson had made the decision to end her biopsychosocial distress by ending her life.
I was the first national reporter to write about her case, after a local radio newsman uncovered it.  I've updated it since and wherever I write about it the articles draw wide readership and comments.   Here's my most recent piece, from The Nation four years ago--it's in two parts, with updates.   She was also featured in my new e-book on the war, So Wrong for So Long.

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