P.O.W. Abuse, Now Against Our Own Guys

Photograph of a Guantanamo Prisoner

This article first appeared in the Wise County Messenger July 8, 2004.

Specialist Sean Baker, formerly of the 438th Military Police Corps, has seizures and takes nine types of prescription medicines daily to combat brain injuries he says he received in the line of duty. Baker's wounds didn't come from enemy combatants, but at the hands of five American MPs who got carried away during a training exercise.

Baker, a Gulf War veteran, re-enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. When he found out his unit hadn't been activated, he shifted to one that would be. Soon he found himself in Guantanamo, Cuba, where as an MP he was charged with guarding suspected Al Qaeda detainees.

On the night of Jan. 24, 2003, he volunteered again.

This time, he was to wear an orange prison jumpsuit while he played the role of an uncooperative detainee during a training exercise. A five-man response team of MPs came into the cell to subdue him, not realizing that he was a U.S. soldier. They were told only that he had been pepper-sprayed after having attacked a sergeant.

He was quickly knocked down, choked and pounded into the ground. Despite giving the code word and desperately telling the MPs, "I'm a U.S. soldier! I'm a U.S. soldier!" he was not able to stop the beating.

The physical assault halted only when the prison jumpsuit was accidentally pulled down during the scuffle, revealing Baker's military uniform.

An investigation in February 2003 determined that a criminal inquiry was not warranted. None of the soldiers involved have been disciplined. Military spokespeople said that while the injuries Baker received were "unfortunate," they were necessary since the United States likes its soldiers to undergo training that is "as realistic as possible."

This training came at a price. Baker claims to have suffered severe brain injuries from the training exercise. A September 2003 military evaluation agreed with him, noting that his was a "service-connected disability." Baker finally was given an honorable discharge with medical retirement in April 2004. The Army at first said that his injuries had nothing to do with the training exercise, but finally and grudgingly admitted that they were related.

The Army has in recent weeks begun an investigation by its Criminal Investigation Command to determine if a felony occurred. It will find its research hampered by the disappearance of a video that was reportedly taken of the exercise. A military spokesperson said that it had "probably" been taped over. Meanwhile, Baker is still waiting for his disability checks.

This case is appalling because of the way an American soldier who volunteered to serve his country has been buffeted and sidelined by the Army's red tape.

But it also is shocking in that it highlights the pervasiveness of abuse in U.S. military prisons. In May, the Pentagon released death certificates for 23 detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least nine of those were determined to be homicides.

Combined with the horrific details that are coming out every day about the Abu Ghraib scandal, it is apparent that there was a serious breakdown in the system.

The United States must ascertain how it allowed this sort of cruel maltreatment to occur. In order for faith to be restored in the United States' goals and motivations and to prevent this from happening again, the responsible parties must be identified.

Baker puts it best: "I never thought my military career would end as a result of a beating which I sustained at the hands of my fellow troops. Someone in charge should have known better." The question is, who?

Article by Victoria Sampson