05/31/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
As Lynndie England sees it, she has suffered more than her share of distress during the past seven months. First, she says, she was an unwilling participant in the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. When asked by Brian Maass, a reporter for television station KCNC in Denver, how she felt being photographed tormenting the detainees, she replied, "If you were surrounded by seven naked Iraqis, wouldn't you be uncomfortable if you were little old me?"
Now back at Fort Bragg, N.C.—where she is charged with, among other things, assaulting Iraqi detainees and conspiracy to mistreat detainees, and facing a possible court-martial—England, 21, says she is so shunned by many other soldiers, she cannot even eat in the mess hall, where her face flashes up frequently in news reports on a big-screen TV. Instead she buys her own food and eats it alone in her barracks. "Even if they don't say anything," she told Maass, "they give me dirty looks."
Things may not get better for England any time soon. On May 19 one of the other six accused members of the 372nd Military Police Company, Spc. Jeremy Sivits, 24, was expected to plead guilty to at least some of the charges against him. In return for a sentence of no more than one year behind bars, Sivits is expected to provide testimony against some of his former colleagues at Abu Ghraib, including England, who is five months pregnant, and her fiancé, Spc. Charles Graner, 35. What's more, members of Congress who reviewed evidence not yet seen by the public report that photos, and even videos, exist of England having sex with multiple partners in front of prisoners. "The government is doing everything it can to smear her name," says one of England's civilian attorneys, Rose Mary Zapor.
Her former comrades haven't helped. Leaked transcripts of interviews that England and Sivits gave to military investigators paint vastly differing pictures. England has insisted that her superiors at the prison—"Everyone in the company from the commander down"—were aware of what was happening and condoned it. She says she was ordered to pose in some of the more disturbing photos, while maintaining that much of what went on was merely horseplay. "We thought it looked funny, so pictures were taken," she told investigators. "[It was] basically us fooling around." Not only that, but when Maass asked if other things occurred that were "worse or more bothersome to her, she said, 'yes.' " (Her lawyer would not allow her to elaborate.)
In his statement Sivits agreed that England seemed to be having a good time—"Laughing at the different stuff that they were having the detainees do"—but depicted their actions in a more sinister light. "As I think about it now," Sivits said, "I do not think any of it was funny." He also insisted that Army brass at the prison had no idea about the abuse. "If they saw what was going on," Sivits said, "there would be hell to pay."
As for the alleged scenes of England having sex with multiple partners in front of prisoners, Zapor says flatly, "It's not true. There may be some things [about her sexual conduct] that are true, but that's not," she says carefully, before declining to elaborate. Meanwhile England, a clerk, has been assigned to menial chores at Fort Bragg. Her mother, Terrie, has moved from the family home in Fort Ashby, W. Va., to be near her daughter. Before Terrie's arrival, England spent most of her evenings in meetings with her lawyers. By all accounts, her pregnancy is going well, and she has been in contact with Graner, who is still in Iraq, about once a week by telephone.
Certainly England seems to have time to kill. Reporter Maass says that when he met her, they had a pre-interview session to get acquainted that stretched to two hours and included a visit to the Fort Bragg PX for her to buy a new dress. Later there was a stop at a Burger King drive-through, where England downed two bacon cheeseburgers (no lettuce, no tomato), fries and a soda—caffeine free because of her pregnancy. The hardest part for England, her lawyers say, is that her life is in limbo. "I would say she's nervous, depressed, stressed out and isolated," says England family lawyer Roy "Tuck" Hardy. "She's stressed out about her own future and the future of her unborn child."
If convicted on all four of the charges against her, England could be sentenced to more than 15 years in jail. Her court-martial could begin within the next few months, though no timetable has been set. Does it bother her, as she awaits her fate, that she is widely perceived as the poster child for the entire abuse scandal? England professes to be unconcerned. "Sticks and stones. I don't care. I know the truth, and they don't," she told Maass of her detractors. "They can have their own opinion."
Bill Hewitt. Vickie Bane in Denver, Alexandra Rockey Fleming in Washington, D.C., and Michaele Ballard in Fayetteville, N.C.