Beating Specialist Baker
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
New York Times
The prison abuse scandal refuses to die because soothing White House explanations keep colliding with revelations about dead prisoners and further connivance by senior military officers -- and newly discovered victims, like Sean Baker.
If Sean Baker doesn't sound like an Iraqi name, it isn't. Specialist Baker, 37, is an American, and he was a proud U.S. soldier. An Air Force veteran and member of the Kentucky National Guard, he served in the first gulf war and more recently was a military policeman in Guantánamo Bay.
Then in January 2003, an officer in Guantánamo asked him to pretend to be a prisoner in a training drill. As instructed, Mr. Baker put on an orange prison jumpsuit over his uniform, and then crawled under a bunk in a cell so an "internal reaction force" could practice extracting an uncooperative inmate. The five U.S. soldiers in the reaction force were told that he was a genuine detainee who had already assaulted a sergeant.
Despite more than a week of coaxing, I haven't been able to get Mr. Baker to give an interview. But he earlier told a Kentucky television station what happened next:
"They grabbed my arms, my legs, twisted me up and unfortunately one of the individuals got up on my back from behind and put pressure down on me while I was face down. Then he -- the same individual -- reached around and began to choke me and press my head down against the steel floor. After several seconds, 20 to 30 seconds, it seemed like an eternity because I couldn't breathe. When I couldn't breathe, I began to panic and I gave the code word I was supposed to give to stop the exercise, which was `red.' . . . That individual slammed my head against the floor and continued to choke me. Somehow I got enough air. I muttered out: `I'm a U.S. soldier. I'm a U.S. soldier.' "
Then the soldiers noticed that he was wearing a U.S. battle dress uniform under the jumpsuit. Mr. Baker was taken to a military hospital for treatment of his head injuries, then flown to a Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Va. After a six-day hospitalization there, he was given a two-week discharge to rest.
But Mr. Baker began suffering seizures, so the military sent him to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment of a traumatic brain injury. He stayed at the hospital for 48 days, was transferred to light duty in an honor burial detail at Fort Dix, N.J., and was finally given a medical discharge two months ago.
Meanwhile, a military investigation concluded that there had been no misconduct involved in Mr. Baker's injury. Hmm. The military also says it can't find a videotape that is believed to have been made of the incident.
Most appalling, when Mr. Baker told his story to a Kentucky reporter, the military lied in a disgraceful effort to undermine his credibility. Maj. Laurie Arellano, a spokeswoman for the Southern Command, questioned the extent of Mr. Baker's injuries and told reporters that his medical discharge was unrelated to the injuries he had suffered in the training drill.
In fact, however, the Physical Evaluation Board of the Army stated in a document dated Sept. 29, 2003: "The TBI [traumatic brain injury] was due to soldier playing role of detainee who was non-cooperative and was being extracted from detention cell in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a training exercise."
Major Arellano acknowledges that she misstated the facts and says she had been misinformed herself by medical personnel. She now says the medical discharge was related in part -- but only in part, she says -- to the "accident."
Mr. Baker, who is married and has a 14-year-old son, is now unemployed, taking nine prescription medications and still suffering frequent seizures. His lawyer, Bruce Simpson, has been told that Mr. Baker may not begin to get disability payments for up to 18 months. If he is judged 100 percent disabled, he will then get a maximum of $2,100 a month.
If the U.S. military treats one of its own soldiers this way -- allowing him to be battered, and lying to cover it up -- then imagine what happens to Afghans and Iraqis.
President Bush attributed the problems uncovered at Abu Ghraib to "a few American troops who dishonored our country." Mr. Bush, the problems go deeper than a few bad apples.