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And Yet A Reminder....The Third American Woman Killed in Iraq

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Message Jayne Stahl
Now that the American people have spoken, and Congress, once again, will reflect the ideas, and aspirations of those of us, in this country, who are to the left of Atila the Hun, it's time for the champagne bottles to go back in the frig, and the shirtsleeves, stuffed or otherwise, to roll up. While this election is a strong indictment of this administration's war policy, those among us who expect instant miracles, with regard to withdrawal from Iraq, now that Congress has changed hands will be hugely disappointed.

Indeed, you may recall that there was only one member of Congress who voted against the war in Iraq, in the first place, and that was Barbara Lee. But, be that as it may, even if we were to pull our troops out of Baghdad, and environs, Monday morning, we need to campaign as vigilantly against human rights abuses, extraordinary rendition, secret cells, and torture which the neo-conservative jihad is leaving as their noxious legacy. Importantly, vitriole and bombast are what got us into this illegal war, and the poison surely won't be the cure this time around, either.

Moreover, the president's gleeful redundancy that we must "stay the course," in Iraq, takes on an eerie quality, and a new meaning, now that the Democrats are at the helm, and especially in light of news that one of the first American female casualties of the war in Iraq died by her own hand. With recent revelations about the truth of how she died, torture, and how it is defined by this administration, is back on the menu.

As "Editor and Publisher" reported, 27 year old Alyssa Peterson, from Flagstaff, Arizona, was an Army specialist and member of the 101st Airborne. Ms. Peterson enlisted in the military back in July, 2001, and shot herself with own rifle on September 15, 2003, after making it known, to colleagues, that she was unable to comply with interrogation procedures used at the Tal-Afar base in northern Iraq.

Her concerns take on special poignancy in light of revelations in last week's Washington Post of Bush administration arguments that terrorism suspects not be allowed to give descriptive details of "alternative interrogation methods" used by their their captors as part of their defense in federal court citing "national security" as a rationale for keeping these techniques secret.

But, what more do we know about the 27 year old Flagstaff woman? Ms. Peterson had a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University, was fluent in Arabic, and was a devout Mormon. She had received extensive training, from the military, in methods of interrogation. Her suicide was officially described, back in 2003, as having resulted from "non-hostile weapons charge," and local newspapers, at the time, described the Army's account that it was an accidental shooting either from her own weapon, from another service member, or from an Iraqi.

Notably, it was only when a Flagstaff public radio, and newspaper, reporter, Kevin Elston, decided to himself investigate the circumstances surrounding Peterson's death, obtaining official documents, previously withheld by the military, under the Freedom of Information Act, that startling details came to light. Elston recounts that "she refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage." Further, the Army spokespersons, for her unit, declined to describe the interrogation methods Peterson witnessed, insisting that "all records of those techniques have now been destroyed."

Given her refusal to be a party to the practices used by her commanding officers to obtain information from prisoners, she was then transferred, and assigned to monitor Iraqi guards. She was also required to enter a suicide prevention training program, an irony not lost on Peterson, in what little is known of her suicide note, observes that it was her suicide prevention training that prepared her to effectively kill herself. Further, the suicide note found on her body, at the time of her death, will also only be made available under an FOIA suit, and Elston has recently filed another lawsuit to obtain its release.

While the entire contents of Peterson's note are not public and, arguably, no one may ever know exactly why this 27 year old Army specialist decided to kill herself with her own service rifle, the Army did conduct an investigation in which several of her associates, and friends, were questioned. As Elston says, it became clear, from the testimonies, that "she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were." What's more, her father, a Flagstaff postal worker, insists that she also tried "to change assignments with someone who did not want to go to Iraq."

As the military won't release details of specific procedures, one can only wonder what methods could be so terrible as to drive a young Army enlistee to take her own life, and become among the first women casualties of the war in Iraq. Moreover, will the "alternative interrogation methods" the young Army specialist may well have witnessed ever see the light of day in federal court, or will that also be classified as "sensitive compartmented information" as our government now designates anything it deems top secret.

In late October, Vice President Dick Cheney called talk about controversial interrogation techniques, such as water boarding, "a little silly." One wonders, too, what the father of this young servicewoman would have to say about that.

Victory, in an election, is always sweet; yet it must also serve as a reminder that it's time for the chickens to come home to roost in this country, with respect to high crimes and misdemeanors in Iraq, and for those, in this government, who call for secrecy with respect to interrogation techniques, and torture, to face the light of day. The death of this young Army specialist must act as a catalyst to inspire legislators to probe, and reveal human rights abuses committed by our troops with the good housekeeping stamp approval of those in command.

Hopefully, when it next convenes, the new majority in the House and Senate will roll up their sleeves, get to work on this egregious breach of the Geneva Conventions, and constitutional law, as well as let those who gave us recent legislation, like the Military Commissions Act, that effectively eliminates habeas corpus, and the so-called USA Patriot Act, which violates our First Amendment rights, know that they won't have Congress to kick around anymore.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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