Prison abuse suspects seen as normal Americans

They are neighbors, relatives, co-workers. One fixed cars; another might’ve bagged your groceries, if you’d stopped in her small West Virginia town.

Seven soldiers, volunteers drawn by money or duty or the chance to get out of town. They got called up to Iraq and entered another world. And now they’re being condemned by everyone from the president to the Vatican.

The photos of Iraqi detainees being humiliated can’t be argued with. But what about these soldiers behind them? Families and friends say there’s an explanation, others to blame, orders given.

The soldiers’ lives offer scant clues. If you picked a handful of people off the street, you’d probably find roughly similar stories, most mundane, some troubled: growing up in small towns and suburbs, dreams of college and careers, marriages, kids, a strife-filled divorce, money worries.

What’s striking, ultimately, is not so much how they stand out from the crowd, but how much they blend in.

Seven of roughly 1.2 million part-time troops, they’re reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company in Cresaptown, Md., sergeants and specialists, in their 20s and 30s, four men and three women.

The first to go before a military tribunal — Spc. Jeremy Sivits — faces a special court-martial next week.

The 24-year-old from Hyndman, Pa., apparently took some of the photographs. He could get up to one year in prison.

Back in Hyndman, Sivits worked at a window-blind factory. He married two years ago, lived with his wife’s parents. His love is baseball, playing catcher, first and third base in school and adult leagues, said Jamey Ringler, the best man at Sivits’ wedding.

Sivits might be first to face justice, but two of the soldiers getting a great deal of scrutiny are both prison guards in civilian life — Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, 37, of Buckingham, Va., and Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, of Uniontown, Pa.

Frederick is the oldest, with 20 years in the Reserves. He signed up in high school and was the senior enlisted soldier at the Abu Ghraib prison between last October and December, when the alleged crimes occurred.

His six years as a prison guard were virtually spotless, said his wife, Martha. He even was cited for saving the life of a prisoner who tried to hang himself, she said. The warden at the Virginia prison wouldn’t comment on Frederick’s record.

Frederick claims the abusive treatment — inmates stripped naked, cuffed to their cells — was orchestrated by military intelligence officers, not MPs, according to a diary his family made available.

For Graner, his history turns up uncomfortable echoes — allegations of brutality at the prison where he worked in western Pennsylvania, threats of violence against his ex-wife.

In lawsuits brought by inmates, he was accused of using excessive force and of planting a razor blade in a plate of potatoes, causing an inmate to cut his mouth. Both suits were dismissed.

He divorced his then-wife in 2000, a marriage that brought two children. She sought legal protection a year later, and alleged in court documents that he dragged her by the hair out of their son’s room, and tried to throw her down the stairs after an argument.

But perhaps the soldier who has received the most notoriety is Spc. Lynndie England, 21. The sight of the slight woman in Army gear, holding a naked prisoner by a leash or pointing at a prisoner’s genitals, has spurred widespread revulsion.

She was headstrong, family said, and dreamed of becoming a storm-chaser who studies tornadoes and other, catastrophic weather. She joined the Reserves to see the world beyond her one-stoplight hometown of Fort Ashby, W. Va.

The other two women joined the Reserves after Sept. 11. Spc. Sabrina D. Harman, 26, was an assistant manager at a pizza chain, while Spc. Megan Ambuhl, 29, was a lab technician, both from northern Virginia, according to published reports.

Harman is one of two smiling soldiers in a photo standing behind naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners stacked in a pyramid. At Ambuhl’s home in Centreville, Va., no one answered the door. A sticker on the window declares: “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

Sgt. Javal Davis, 26, ran track in college but didn’t graduate, married, is raising two children, is called a devout Baptist. His father insists the accusations can’t be true.

“My son is a good kid, a good man,” said Jonathan Davis.