The couple at the centre of a scandal that horrified the world

By Andrew Buncombe in Fort Ashby, West Virginia

07 May 2004

Those who know Lynndie England look at the photographs and cannot believe what they are seeing. Having been confronted for several days with images of the 21-year-old tormenting and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners, they say the woman they recognise in the shocking pictures is not the person they recognise from the lives they shared.

Ms England's mother, Terrie, told the Baltimore Sun newspaper: "It's all over the news, but we're not hearing anything new. They just keep showing the pictures. How many times do I have to see those pictures?"

With more evidence of the abuse involving half-a-dozen members of the Army's 372nd Military Police Company emerging every day, friends, relatives and neighbours across the hills of north-east Appalachia, that down-at-heel part of the US that includes West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western Maryland, speak not only of their revulsion, but of their shock, of pride being replaced with disgust.

Confronted with one of the most recent photographs, which shows Ms England holding a prisoner by a lead, friends could barely accept it was the woman they had seen off to Iraq. Destiny Goin, Ms England's best friend, told The Washington Post: "It just makes me laugh because that is not Lyn. She wouldn't pull a dog by its neck, let alone drag a human being." Ms England grew up in the small town of Fort Ashby in West Virginia, close to the border with Maryland. Her mother said that she volunteered for the army reserves while still at high school, going on basic training while most other students were taking up summer jobs.

After training, she returned to Fort Ashby to work at a chicken-processing plant and signed up with the Army's 372nd, based in Cumberland, Maryland. She had been married briefly but the relationship ended before she left for Iraq last year.

She had joined the reserves to earn money for college, her family said, and they talked of another young woman from West Virginia who went to Iraq and found herself in the news for the wrong reasons: Jessica Lynch.

Indeed, Ms England's family were quick to draw comparisons between their daughter and the young woman who was taken prisoner by the Iraqis, then collected from an Iraqi hospital by US special forces in a operation spun by the Pentagon as a dramatic rescue mission.

"Just like what happened with that Lynch girl, this is getting blown out of proportion," Ms England's father said. "But in a negative way rather than a positive way."

It is hard to think of how much more negative the publicity surrounding their daughter could be. The photographs that have been published and broadcast around the world show Ms England smiling and smirking, while pointing to the genitals of the hooded prisoners.

Testimony from a soldier suggests that as one of the prisoners was forced to masturbate in front of a friend, Ms England, 21, shouted: "He's getting hard." Friends describe Ms England as independent-minded, someone "not afraid to break a nail", but her mother insisted her daughter was not trained as a guard. "She didn't guard them, she booked them. She just happened to be there when they took these photographs." At the time when the prisoners were being abused, at the end of last year, the people of Fort Ashby and the surrounding area were starting to think of Ms England and her colleagues as heroes. Knowing they were helping provide security at the prison made notorious by Saddam Hussein, friends posted pictures of them in the local courthouse and in the Wal-Mart supermarket.

But Mrs England said her daughter telephoned from Baghdad in January with news that would shatter that pride. She said the US army had launched an investigation into alleged abuse at the prison. "I just want you to know there might be some trouble," she told her mother.

Ms England has not yet been charged with any offence but she has been detained at the huge military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for several months.

Her mother said she has lost 25 lbs and has been sick, spending most of the time sleeping. She had been on the phone to her daughter one day last week while the television news was on. "You're on every channel," she told her daughter. "There you are and there's a naked Iraqi and there's you with your thumb up."

She said her daughter had told her: "Mom, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Ms England's family will not comment on her pregnancy or her relationship with Charles Graner, a former prison officer from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, one of the six soldiers from the regiment facing courts-martial.

Mr Graner's neighbours said they were stunned by the revelation that he was apparently involved in abuse. Painted on a stone outside of his home is a verse from the Book of Hosea. It says: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you."

A neighbour, Thomas Zavada, said he had seen pictures of Mr Graner, standing with a broad grin, in front of a pyramid of naked prisoners. "It's not the American way," Mr Zavada said. "We're not supposed to treat people like that."

But court records obtained by The Independent show this is not the first time Mr Graner was involved in abuse. His former wife, Staci, obtained three separate "temporary protection of abuse" orders against him. In a document passed to the court, she told of one occasion when he went to her house after their divorce.

"[He] yanked me out of ... bed by my hair, dragging me and all of the covers into the hall and tried to throw me down the steps," she wrote. "Both of the children witnessed this and were screaming at this point. He let go of me, turned around to the children and said, 'See what your Mommy is doing to us'."

The Independent has also learnt that Mr Graner, a former US Marine, was working at Greene Correctional Facility when the prison was at the centre of an abuse scandal. Officials there have declined to say whether Mr Graner was involved or disciplined.
7 May 2004 09:43