The RAIN Newsletter (25-4-09)
U.S. Soldier Killed Herself--After Refusing to Take Part in Torture
By Greg Mitchell
Editor & Publisher: April 23, 2009
With each new revelation on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo
(and who, knows, probably elsewhere), I am reminded of the chilling story of
Alyssa Peterson, who I have written about numerous times in the past three
years but now with especially sad relevance. Appalled when ordered to take
part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what we would call torture,
she refused, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003.
Of course, we now know from the torture memos and the U.S. Senate committee
probe and various new press reports, that the "Gitmo-izing" of Iraq was
happening just at the time Alyssa got swept up in it.
Alyssa Peterson was one of the first female soldiers killed in Iraq. A
cover-up, naturally, followed.
Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native, served with C Company, 311th
Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne. Peterson was an Arabic-speaking
interrogator assigned to the prison at our air base in troubled Tal Afar in
northwestern Iraq. According to official records, she died on Sept. 15,
2003, from a "non-hostile weapons discharge."
A "non-hostile weapons discharge" leading to death is not unusual in Iraq,
often quite accidental, so this one apparently raised few eyebrows. The
Arizona Republic, three days after her death, reported that Army officials
"said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including
Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier
discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian."
And that might have ended it right there.
But in this case, a longtime radio and newspaper reporter named Kevin
Elston, not satisfied with the public story, decided to probe deeper in
2005, "just on a hunch," he told me in late 2006 (there's a chapter about it
in my book on Iraq and the media, "So Wrong for So Long"). He made "hundreds
of phone calls" to the military and couldn't get anywhere, so he filed a
Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request. When the documents of the
official investigation of her death arrived, they contained bombshell
revelations. Here's what the Flagstaff public radio station, KNAU, where
Elston then worked, reported:
"Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She
refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as
the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the
interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those
techniques have now been destroyed."
According to the official report on her death released the following year,
she had earlier been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners.
One of the most moving parts of that report is: "She said that she did not
know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and
another outside the wire."
Peterson was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi
guards, and sent to suicide prevention training. "But on the night of
September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed
herself with her service rifle," the documents disclose.
A notebook she had been writing was found next to her body. Its contents
were redacted in the official report.
The Army talked to some of Peterson's colleagues. Asked to summarize their
comments, Elston told me: "The reactions to the suicide were that she was
having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her
professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that
she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those
Elston said that the documents also refer to a suicide note found on her
body, which suggested that she found it ironic that suicide prevention
training had taught her how to commit suicide. He filed another FOIA request
for a copy of the actual note.
Peterson, a devout Mormon, had graduated from Flagstaff High School and
earned a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military
scholarship. She was trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in
Arizona, and was sent to the Middle East in 2003.
A report in The Arizona Daily Sun of Flagstaff -- three years after Alyssa's
death -- revealed that Spc. Peterson's mother, Bobbi Peterson, reached at
her home in northern Arizona, said that neither she nor her husband Richard
had received any official documents that contained information outlined in
In other words: Like the press and the public, even the parents had been
kept in the dark.
Tomorrow I will write about Kayla Williams, a woman who served with Alyssa,
and talked to her about her problems shortly before she killed herself, and
also took part in torture interrogations. She observed the punching of
detainees and was forced to take part in one particular tactic: prisoners
were stripped naked, and when they took off their blindfolds the first thing
they saw was Kayla. She opted out, but survived, and is haunted years later.
Here's what Williams told Soledad O'Brien of CNN : "I was asked to assist.
And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had
slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate.
There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes."
All of this only gains relevance in light of the current debate over whether
those who were "just following orders" in torture routines should be held
Greg Mitchell's latest book is "Why Obama Won." His previous book on Iraq
and the media was "So Wrong for So Long." He is editor of Editor &