May 24, 2004 12:00 PM

For five of the soldiers caught up in the Iraq abuse scandal, every day has become a struggle against twin enemies: boredom and apprehension. The accused share a single tent at Camp Victory in Baghdad, where they are assigned menial tasks such as sweeping streets. Stripped of their weapons, they are otherwise treated like any other soldiers and are free to move around as they please. Not that there are many places they would like to go, except home. “There is nothing to do over there,” says Harvey Volzer, the civilian lawyer for one of the soldiers, Spc. Megan Ambuhl, 29. “At the end of the day they stand at the Internet cafe line and hope the Internet is up. TV consists of CNN, all the news you can watch.”

The news has brought little comfort. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned that new images may soon emerge that are even more shocking than those now familiar photos of the soldiers tormenting naked Iraqi prisoners. There are news reports of photos showing U.S. soldiers beating an Iraqi prisoner nearly to death, having sex with a female Iraqi detainee and mistreating a dead body. It is unclear whether any of the seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company accused of mistreating prisoners—Ambuhl; Spc. Jeremy Sivits, 24; Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, 37; Sgt. Javal Davis, 26; Spc. Charles Graner Jr., 35; Spc. Sabrina Harman, 26; and Pfc. Lynndie England, 21—are connected to these incidents. But the question remains: How could seemingly average soldiers from average backgrounds with small-town values have done this?

“We all felt like we were doing things we weren’t supposed to because we were told to do them,” England told Denver’s KCNC-TV. Their superiors, she said, “would come back and they’d look at the pictures and they’d state, ‘That’s a good tactic. Keep it up. That’s workin’.”

Friends and family take the line that the seven were not career soldiers trained in controlling prisoners or facilitating interrogation. Instead a picture emerges of a band of buddies, out for adventure or a free education while serving their country. In Cumberland, Md., where the 372nd—a reserve unit—is based, some members would often head over to the nearby Big Claw tavern. “We’d get together and have a few beers and listen to karaoke and jokes,” recalls Kerry Shoemaker-Davis, a former staff sergeant. Many nights the revelers included Sivits, a mechanic from Hyndman, Pa., whom Shoemaker-Davis calls a natural “comedian,” and Frederick, an amiable country-music fan from Buckingham, Va. One who never made the scene was England. A chicken-factory worker from Fort Ashby, W.Va., she joined the reserves at 17 and was underage. But to the others England seemed mature. “Lynndie had her whole life planned out,” says Shoemaker-Davis. “She was going to do the Army thing and get money for college. She wanted to be a meteorologist.”

When the unit first arrived in Iraq, it was assigned mostly to traffic duties. But in October they were sent to Abu Ghraib to fill the role of prison guards—a task unfamiliar to all but Graner and Frederick, who had worked in prisons back home. “My son is not a trained MP,” Sivits’s father, Daniel, told The Washington Post. “He is trained as a mechanic…. He’s used to changing tires on a Humvee.” First Lt. David Sutton, 38, who blew the whistle on some of the abuse at Abu Ghraib, says inexperience is no excuse. “It’s not rocket science,” says Sutton. “It’s basic how you treat human beings—you don’t do certain things to them.”

In Abu Ghraib, Frederick and Graner emerged as natural—if not ideal—leaders. Shoemaker-Davis describes Frederick as “an awesome guy.” Yet she also calls him a relentless practical joker with a decidedly rude sense of humor. “I remember him sticking a spider in someone’s sleeping bag when we were doing maneuvers,” she says. “And he was a very talented belcher. He’d belch really loud and long.”

Graner’s former boss, warden Larry Medlock of the Fayette County Prison in Pennsylvania, calls him “no more than an average guard” who had “some progressive discipline problems,” mainly being late for work and calling in sick too often. The Gulf War I vet also had problems at home. Graner’s ex-wife Staci persuaded judges to issue at least three orders of protection against him. In statements to the court, Staci said Graner had physically and verbally abused her and “stalked” her after she left him. Graner’s lawyer Guy Womack dismisses any notion his client has a violent streak, adding that he received joint custody of the couple’s two children. “In Pennsylvania, if you beat your wife, you are not likely to get joint custody,” says Womack. “I wouldn’t say he’s a bad guy.”

At some point Graner and England became romantically involved. She is five months pregnant with their child and was shipped back to Fort Bragg, N.C. Her family is convinced she was following orders when she posed smiling next to naked Iraqi detainees. “She’s not like that,” says sister Jessica Klinestiver, 24, who describes England as “kind, quiet, shy around other people.”

Among all the families of the accused there is this same sense of disbelief. Tonenethia Jackson, the sister-in-law of Javal Davis, describes him as a “workaholic” who held down two or three jobs to provide for his wife and 4-year-old son. Robin Harman, the mother of Sabrina Harman, who in civilian life worked at a Papa John’s pizzeria in Alexandria, Va., says her daughter always aspired to be a police officer like her father, a former homicide detective. “She has this attitude that she is going to save the world,” Robin told reporters.

As a student at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina in the late ’90s, Megan Ambuhl seemed “meek,” says one of her professors, Richard Koesterer. He expresses astonishment at the accusations against her but then provides this possibly telling insight: “She was quiet and cooperative, never rebellious. She was the ideal follower.”

An Army report says supervision at the prison was lax at best, which psychologist Craig Haney suspects was the problem. Haney, now a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was a researcher in a landmark 1971 study at Stanford University in which student volunteers were recruited for a mock prison—half as guards, half as inmates. Within days, the “guards,” who were given no rules, were routinely humiliating their “prisoners” by, among other things, making them strip naked and wear hoods. “We concluded that good, normal people placed in a bad situation have their behavior pushed and twisted in unrecognizable forms,” says Haney. “Good people are led to bad things.”

That is what this group of seven is likely to argue in the coming months. But whistle-blower Sutton says that he—and most of the other guards—observed a simple rule at the prison: “I always try to operate, wherever I am, like everybody’s watching me.” For the members of the 372nd, everybody is watching, but it is way too late.

Bill Hewitt. Jane Sims Podesta and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., Bob Calandra in Philadelphia and Alexandra Rockey Fleming in Fort Ash by

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