Just as the news of U.S. military personnel mistreating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib filtered into the United States, Lt. Col. Deanna Germain, a 53-year-old grandmother and Army reservist from Minnesota, was sent to the prison when her yearlong tour of duty was extended.
Germain details her experience at Abu Ghraib, as well as her tour in Kuwait just prior, in Reaching Past the Wire: A Nurse at Abu Ghraib (Borealis Books, 211 pages, $24.95), written with Connie Lounsbury. It was the idea of a grandmother going to war that drew me to the book...
And indeed, even though Germain was trained to treat Iraqi prisoners while keeping a personal distance, human nature won out and she ended up befriending her colleagues and translators and was a comfort to her patients.
Germain recounts the confusion she and her fellow soldiers felt as they were given possibly less information that we in the States were given about the abuses that had occurred in the prison before they ever got there. They heard only bits and pieces of what they only knew to be rumors. The more information they received, the more difficult their situation became.
"[The press] were allowed to walk through the hospital and observe, but not talk to, the patients," Germain recalls. "They could watch us briefly as we cared for the patients. It seemed so unnatural to me as we stood like actors, our patients wide-eyed and wondering what was happening... I felt like a monkey in a zoo, and I resented it even more than I realized. We felt the disdain and dislike from a great many reporters who toured our facility. Those scornful looks even came from U.S. reporters.
"As the allegations and pictures continued to be publicized, we started fearing retaliation. We were afraid that the world might not even care. What a demoralizing time for us as soldiers. But we found ourselves banding together and supporting each other and working hard to improve the image of the military there and hopefully in general."
Germain's story is interesting on many levels. Not only is it one soldier's account of being in a place we all have a preconceived notion about, but also it's an older-than-most, female soldier's account. Her return to American soil was as traumatic for her as being in a war zone. This was the part of the book that was most interesting to me.
"I thought that I knew what the adjustment would be like and that I had some control over the process. But I had thoughts, feelings, and inner chatter that could not be rationally controlled. My mind was in Iraq, but my body was here, where it quickly felt like it didn't belong.
"Amazingly, I felt unsafe in my safe, quiet suburb. I didn't have my weapon, I didn't have my gear, and no one was guarding the bridges when we drove.
"I was so exhausted. Getting up was not a problem, but getting motivated to accomplish tasks was. Making simple decisions was difficult. I didn't much care about my own health. i was so used to thinking today could be the day I get killed that it didn't seem very important. I never felt sorry for myself. I just felt such sadness — I had a heavy heart."
I admit I am not into war books. I don't seek them out, but the grandmother/soldier aspect grabbed me and then hooked me. For me, the human element makes learning about history much more appealing.