Col. touts Army effort after Abu Ghraib

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 13, 2007

WESSON – Army Col. Robert Thomas said it took him 11 months and$300 million to correct deficiencies caused by a “total andcomplete breakdown in military leadership” that led to the AbuGhraib scandal.

“I didn’t know anything about the scandal when I first arrivedin Iraq (in February 2004),” Thomas said Monday during the secondspeech of a lecture series at Copiah-Lincoln Community College’sRea Auditorium.

The colonel in charge of addressing problems following theprison scandal arrived in April 2004 with the 114th Army LiaisonTeam, commanding more than 3,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen andmarines, more than 600 Department of Defense civilians and and 400 local national employees. He also had tooversee the security, care and detention of more than 8,000coalition security detainees and 2,100 Iraqi criminals.

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The events leading to the scandal had already occurred, but werenot yet public when Thomas took control of the prison.

Allegations of severe maltreatment and abuse of Iraqi prisonersat the prison began emerging in 2003, prompting an internal U.S.Army investigation that began in January 2004.

The abuse became public in April 2004 when graphic photographsdepicting guards beating prisoners and other images were posted onthe Internet and carried by several media organizations.

The scandal tarnished the image of the U.S. armed forces amongboth its citizens and the international community. Eventually, 23soldiers were convicted on various charges and the prisoncommandant, Janis Karpinksi, was demoted from the rank of general.She still claims she was made a scapegoat by senior U.S. staff inIraq.

Thomas did not discuss the scandal itself. He said the publicknew the “ugly part” of the story, but not what occurredafterward.

Thomas said when the scandal broke his first mission became torestore America’s honor and its international standing. To do that,he first had to counter misinformation.

Following the scandal, Thomas said media reports includedadditional atrocities – soldiers flushing the Koran down toilets,running over puppies for fun, making fun of Iraqi women disfiguredby IEDs, or even shooting into a crowd of peaceful protesters,among others.

“Not one single incident is true,” he said. “I should know. Iwas there.”

Physical improvements of “the burned out hulks of concretebuildings” began with the restoration of power and waterpurification, he said. He next converted an abandoned building toprovide troop services, such as a local wares gift shop, sewingcenter to repair uniforms, a six-chair barber ship with athree-chair salon for the women and renovated other facilities tocreate a 24-hour dining facility that fed 33,000 soldiers anddetainees per day.

Thomas also added shower facilities for the soldiers anddetainees and reduced the capacity of detainee tents from 40 to 20occupants while providing air conditioning and heating, all thewater they could drink and four meals a day.

“We treated them so well that when some were released theyrefused to leave the prison because it was so much better than theywould get on the outside,” Thomas said.

He was especially proud of the 52-bed hospital with six surgicalsuites.

“I was determined we were going to provide the best medicalservices to our detainees so when the world press came back theycould see it and tell the world. They never did,” Thomas said.

To fully understand the accomplishments made by the unit,however, people have to be aware of the situation in which it wasdone, the colonel said.

“Al Qaeda attacked that prison every day I was there, but that’spart of the story you never hear,” Thomas said.

Located approximately 20 miles west of Baghdad in the middle ofthe Sunni Triangle, Abu Ghraib was surrounded by hostiles. Afour-lane interstate on the south side of the prison was only 50meters from the wall.

“If you wanted to attack the prison you could do it at 80 milesan hour – and many of them did,” Thomas said, citing severalinstances that bomb-laden vehicles would attempt to strike thewalls in suicide attacks.

Frequently, hostiles would fire mortars into the 280-acrecompound, he said. Six days after taking control of the prison, hesaid mortar fire killed nine detainees and wounded six others.

A few days later, 22 detainees were killed and 100 wounded inanother attack.

The attacks continued even after bunkers were placed throughoutthe compound, including the area reserved for detainees.

In addition, many of his local nationals would leave the prisonat the end of the day only to be captured and beheaded. Insurgentsattempting to infiltrate the compound as national employees werearrested weekly.

“In my estimation, we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan because we needto be,” Thomas said. “We’re not still in Iraq because we want tobe, but because Al Qaeda has kept us there.”