Tuesday, July 26, 2016

NEA-Supported Writer Anna Stull Speaks about her Experiences in Iraq

A medically retired Captain in the Army Nurse Corps, writer Anna Stull came to VCCA on a fellowship funded by the NEA supporting military veteran artists. Anna is writing a memoir of her experiences deployed to Abu Ghraib Prison in 2006 and as Saddam Hussein’s nurse while detailed to the Iraqi High Tribunal Court during the Al-Anfal Trial.

Anna began writing soon after her return from Iraq as a form of therapy. Over the course of three years as she wrote, she gained clarity about what she had been through. Once she realized, it’s okay; I’m okay, as opposed to, I’m still wounded, she felt able to move into a more didactic mind frame and begin writing in a serious way about her experiences. “In the beginning, I was nervous about putting anything in print that had anything to do with my co-workers,” she says. “And then I realized, I’m not writing about them; it’s my story and I’m writing about events. I figured out a way that makes it possible for me to address what I need to address and not make it punitive.“

Raised in a liberal academic family, Anna seems an unlikely person to join the armed forces, although she’d had a variety of physically challenging, often dangerous jobs: EMT, wild land firefighter and ski patrol member. But saddled with debt from nursing school at UNC, Chapel Hill and with a kindergartener to support (whom she would be separated from for 20 months while she was deployed), the military offered a good solution. “I wasn’t excited about nursing when I graduated; I’d always had jobs that were out of doors and I felt very strongly that regardless of political affiliation, our service people deserve good healthcare. I did my clinicals at Duke and learned good critical thinking skills. I like to think that had some benefit beyond direct patient care. I thought maybe I could handle, possibly even, a leadership role. I don’t even know how to explain it—there was a calling.”

As if Iraq weren’t enough of a challenging experience, before being deployed there, Anna was sent to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina as part of an emergency medical team. She was there for three months. On Halloween, she learned she would be stationed at Abu Ghraib. Before deploying, Anna was sent to Wisconsin for preparatory detainee healthcare training. The instructors were part of a reserve group; they’d never been deployed and had no experience with corrections. “It was the most ridiculous training I’ve ever had in my entire life. They basically taught us that we were going to be shanked to death with a pencil and to never ever have a pen in your hand. There was just a half a day of language instruction with 450 people in a huge auditorium learning to say, Hello, are you in pain? My name is…and then they put us on a plane and we went to Iraq. I was like, okay our patient population primarily speaks Arabic; you’ve given us half a day. We’re going into an internment facility that is fraught with problems, not only the atrocities that happened in 2003, but since 1968, the facility has functioned as a torture house for up to a half a million people under the Ba’athist regime. We didn’t get any history lessons, there was no explanation of what the facilities looked like, what to expect…nothing. I wasn’t scared as much as I was very aware of how ill prepared we were and that all panned out. You know when people say I really hate being right? Yeah, that was one of those times.”

At Abu Ghraib, 12,000 detainees were housed in tents. There were enormous Eureka tents that held 500, all the way down to small tents, which held ten men. Your threat level determined where you’d end up. “For the first three months, my job wasn’t in the ER. I was out in the camps as the diabetes nurse. Out of the total patient population there were probably 70 patients spread out over 240 acres. So, every morning I would go with all my gear to see patients. The guys would wait in line, pushing themselves up against the fence so I could give them their insulin shots.” Chain link fences separated her from the men. Everyone inside the camp was surrounded by 12' concrete Jersey Barriers. Beyond this was the 20’ external Abu Ghraib wall.

“Over the course of three months I got to know the patient population very well, in conditions quite different from those inside the ward. There was one man—I’m not sure to what lengths I would go to find if he’s still alive. He was a retired Boeing engineer. He had a degree from Oxford and a Master’s in engineering from a U.S. university. He knew everything about Seattle; we could exchange landmarks. I knew this was a legitimate individual. He spoke French, Arabic, English. He was a businessman; his family was fairly affluent; he was Sunni.

“When we invaded in 2003, he returned to Iraq. He claimed a rival businessman turned him in as a gun dealer to get him out of the way. His record said he was an informant and there was something about arms or guns. Something about his storefronts being used for something, but why they got him and no one else in his family… no one’s story matched up. What matched up is he spoke French and he’d been all over the world. We discussed Moscow and he was able to describe my favorite metro station to a T. Okay, so maybe he saw it on the Internet and remembered that one picture, or, yes, maybe he was there with Boeing, looking at some aviation equipment, which sounds more plausible. As his health declined, he became angrier and angrier. He had already been there for three years with no charges and that I know for a fact. No charges. He was just continually being held. The angrier he got, the more strikes against him were showing up in the system and I kept saying, You’ve got to be careful; you’re starting to look really bad. And he’s like: ‘I don’t care anymore.’ And then the second to the last time I saw him, he was completely beat up. A 68-year old man. I asked him who did it to him and he said, ‘Does it matter who did this? It doesn’t matter anymore.’ And it just killed me. And whether or not he was an arm’s dealer or had anything to do with the insurgency, if a foreign force came to the United States of America, we would all be standing up doing the exact same thing. The last I heard he was touting religious fundamentalism. One of the things we did wrong was putting 500 Sunnis in a tent together and 500 Shia in another. All it did was polarize the civil war. Abu Ghraib is the birthplace of Isis, it’s a throw back to the Ba’athist Sunni party whose members were all incarcerated there without being charged in horrible conditions—that’s the womb of Isis right there.”

At Abu Ghraib, Anna also took care of young children. There were 100 kids under the age of 14 being detained. Under the Rules of Engagement, the Marine Corps could scoop up everyone within 1,000 meters of an IED attack and this included children. The only place to take them was Abu Ghraib, so entire families were there, though they were segregated and hadn’t seen each other in years. The children would surround Anna: “Tell my Dad I said Hi”, they’d cry or, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” In August 2006 they were moved to Camp Cropper, a high value detainee facility. Built by Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown and Root using millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, it was a state of the art facility with huge locking doors, cells, catwalks and towers. “Here, for one hour a day Monday through Friday the children went to a tent for school taught by captured women, so maybe a mother was there, maybe not. And a lot of the matriarchs there were Saddam’s sisters, nieces, cousins—50% of the women at Camp Cropper were his kin.”

Moving into the ER took her away from a lot of these personal interactions. “The beauty of the ER is you start your shift and end your shift. What happens in between doesn’t tend to happen the next day. You don’t see the same people. Three things happen: your patient is discharged, they die, or they’re admitted into the hospital where they’re placed in an intermediate care ward. Those folks had up to 40 people for weeks, the same people. That’s where issues started to build.

“Torture was hard. It still existed, and don’t ever think it didn’t. I cared for people who’d been tortured all the time. The C.I.A. may never waterboard again, but they’ll find something different. And those subordinate units that aren’t scrutinized as closely (Delta Force, the SEALS, psychology units), they absolutely continued until the day we left. And there’s an acceptable element within Iraq and other Arabic countries that torture’s part of the fabric of the society, even though 99% don’t want it. A lot of times they’d have somebody in custody, the U.S. would be there, they’d allow the Iraqi police or army to torture the person. If they didn’t die, but came within death, they packaged them up and sent them to us. I had a note on my clipboard that said: Fresh trauma is normal. Fresh trauma is someone who’s been shot, or been in an IED explosion and have been brought straight to you. Like that’s normal, that’s understandable. We called the torture victims “recycled trauma”. The trauma happened and then somehow they’re recycled through the system and when they finally got to us, it was never normal. Arms would be broken at terrible angles, but the injuries would be a week old. You’d have to amputate at that point. We were giving a very high level of medical care, but we were not rehabilitating anybody. So the best way to give this person an opportunity to live was not rehabilitate in a case like that. It was an amputation.”

After Saddam was captured he was never in the same location for two nights in a row. They moved him around the country for three years. It was the only way to keep him alive. It was when he came to Camp Cropper that Anna first encountered him.

Four months later Anna was picked to go to the Iraqi High Tribunal Court during the Al-Anfal Trial. Saddam had already been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death, but with the Al-Anfahl trial, the charge was genocide pertaining to the gassing of tens of thousands of Kurds, and so vastly more important. “Being part of the emergency medical crew is a rotating assignment. My first tour was two and a half weeks, and then subsequently, I got asked back. I was the only nurse given this honor, but it’s hard to say that being assigned to a trial where they executed somebody was one of the highlights of my deployment because I’m not sure I believe in the death penalty.

“Saddam Hussein and I never said one word to each other. He was charming, jovial, manipulative and scary. All the things required for a dictator. I watched him deal with younger soldiers. He was good at mind games; that's for sure. It's why the Army had to rotate his security detachment every three months, or less.”

Following her experiences at Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper, Anna wanted to figure out how to get people thinking about how we can work better in the future. “One of the things that I have always felt is that active duty military medical support should not be doing EPW (Enemy Prisoner of War) health care for extended periods of time. There’s a conflict of interest in the primal reason you’re doing both. Healthcare is to help people. The military’s foundation is the elimination of an enemy or threat. When you got the two of those together for a lengthy period of time it became hard for good people to look at the person restrained on the bed who had just killed three U.S. soldiers, as a patient deserving of care anymore. In armed conflict, EPWs who need health care and the detainee facility itself should be moved out of the theater as far as possible.

“Furthermore, there needs to be security and those security teams need to have special training in corrections. It should not be a standard infantry unit. Once at Abu Ghraib, we had an infantry unit move in and in a six-week period probably 18 detainees lost eyes. The nonlethal “donkey balls” used during any kind of riot or suppression were designed to knock someone down when aimed at the body, but the infantry is trained to kill, and so aim shots at the head, resulting in blindings. This completely undermined medicine’s approach to the three things that take absolute critical precedence: Life, limb and eyesight.”

Anna is advocating for the U.N. to put together teams, which have no affiliation in a particular conflict, that are trained culturally, ethically and competently in delivering healthcare to Enemy Prisoners of War.

When Anna returned from Iraq, she had problems sleeping and also with patient care. Taking blood, or doing anything where she felt she was hurting someone became nearly impossible. With her six years commission obligation running out, she put together a package to re-branch into civil affairs with the intention of developing a wellness transition team composed of doctors, nurses and medics that would be part of the provincial reconstruction. The members of the medical team would be culturally competent and able to speak the language. They would go into the community and teach the Imam and other community members how to deal with healthcare emergencies, public health issues, trauma, childbirth, mental health, etc. The Pentagon approved the proposal and Anna received orders to go to Afghanistan for 15 months. Six weeks before, she was due to leave, she broke her leg severely. The break didn’t heal properly and she had been measured for a prosthesis at Walter Reed. Following a third and final surgery, which successfully saved her leg, she was dosed with the wrong anesthesia along with nine other people, which caused serious damage from which she is only now recovering.

Despite all she has been through, Anna remains remarkably positive and sunny. Rather than bringing her down and paralyzing her, her experiences have galvanized her into action. Upon leaving the military, Anna returned to school to get her M. A. in Emergency Management. “I would have liked to get an M.F.A., but you can’t put food on the table with that.” After receiving her degree, Anna began working at the U.S. Geological Survey as an Emergency Manager writing policy for the Department of Interior.

Being at VCCA has “Offered me safety and the ability to do something I’ve wanted to do for ages, namely spread out all my materials.” Anna gestures to the walls of her studio all four of which are covered with photographs and text. “For a variety of reasons, I haven’t had the luxury of doing this before. It’s enabled me to organize my thoughts and narrative.

“With this experience at VCCA, I realize I haven’t had much time to heal or focus on healing. I have gone from one burning fire to the next burning fire. And I knew it, but I didn’t feel it, but now I’m here and I feel it. And I’m like, okay, things can be different. They really can. The other Fellows are thoughtful and intelligent, and fun, and deeply engrossed in their work, and it’s really interesting being around them.

“This has been by far, the highlight of the last six years. Being here is so much more than putting stuff up on a wall. It gave me validity. If this organization that has such a fabulous reputation—if they believe in me, then I have the self-confidence to go do the residency. It gave me the strength to tell my family I was leaving, the strength to tell work that they would have to do without me. I have not taken any time off to do this before—that’s my own fault.  Now, I see that I need to.”

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