Tomorrow marks the seventh anniversary of the death of Spc. Alyssa R. Peterson in Iraq. Yesterday, in Part I of this article, I described how, appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that likely involved what most would call torture, Spc. Peterson, 27, refused, then killed herself a few days later, on September 15, 2003, with her own rifle.
Of course, we now know from the torture memos and the US Senate committee probe and various press reports, that the "Gitmo-izing" of Iraq was happening just at the time Alyssa, a valuable Arabic-speaking interpreter, got swept up in it. When she objected, she was reprimanded, according to the official report. Then she chose suicide.
Yesterday’s article concluded with a comment from Peterson’s brother, and a few quotes from former Sgt. Kayla Williams, another Arabic-speaking interpreter who Peterson sought out for advice shortly before her death. But because Alyssa’s suicide note and contents from her journal have not been released, we can’t say for certain what factor or factors led directly to her death.
Chelsea Russell, who studied Arabic with Peterson at a military facility in Monterrey, California, told me that she found Alyssa to be an especially "sincere and kind person" but she had come to question her Mormon faith a few months before getting shipped to Iraq. "I believe that Alyssa was at a crossroads at the time of her death," Russell added. " I don’t know if she had strong emotional support in Iraq. Questioning her own religious beliefs, her military colleagues, and her part in the war may have been too much for her."
Arabic-speaking Kayla Williams, now out of the Army, described how she had been recruited to briefly take part in over-the-line interrogations. Like Peterson, she protested torture techniques—such as throwing lit cigarettes at prisoners—and was quickly shifted away. But she told me that she is still haunted by the experience and wonders if she objected strongly enough.
Williams and Peterson were both interpreters—but only the latter was in "human intelligence," that is, trained to take part in interrogations. They met by chance when Williams, who had been on a mission, came back to the base in Tal Afar in September 2003 before heading off again. A civilian interpreter asked her to speak to Peterson, who seemed troubled. Like others, Williams found her to be a "sweet girl." Williams asked if she wanted to go to dinner, but Peterson was not free—maybe next time, she said, but then time ran out.
Their one conversation, Williams told me, centered on personal, not military, problems, and it’s hard to tell where it fit in the suicide timeline. According to records of the Army probe, Peterson had protested, and asked out of, interrogations after just two days in what was known as "the cage"—and killed herself shortly after that. This might have all transpired just after her encounter with Williams, or it might have happened before and she did not mention it at that time—they did not really know each other.
Peterson’s suicide on September 15, 2003—reported to the press and public as death by "non-hostile gunshot," usually meaning an accident—was the only fatality suffered by the battalion during their entire time in Iraq, Williams reports. At the memorial service, everyone knew the cause of her death.