Specialist Alyssa Peterson died in Iraq in September, 2003. The military listed her death as the result of a "non-hostile weapons discharge." But newly uncovered military documents reveal Peterson actually shot herself with her service rifle. The documents also show her suicide came just two weeks after she refused to take part in further interrogations of Iraqi prisoners and had asked to be reassigned. We speak with the reporter who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]
Did the torture of Iraqi prisoners lead an American soldier to take her own life? The question is being raised on the heels of new-disclosed military documents kept under wraps for the past three years.
Specialist Alyssa Peterson was twenty-seven years old when she died on September 15th, 2003. She was the third female soldier to lose her life in the Iraq war. Peterson was assigned as an interrogator to a US air base in Tal Afar. The military listed her death as the result of a: "non-hostile weapons discharge."
But the newly uncovered military documents reveal Peterson actually shot herself with her service rifle. The documents also show her suicide came just two weeks after she refused to take part in further interrogations of Iraqi prisoners and had asked to be reassigned. Peterson had taken part in just two interrogation sessions. James D. Hamilton–Peterson’s first sergeant — told investigators: "It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them." Military officials refused to describe what techniques Peterson had objected to and said all records of them had been destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now on the phone by the reporter who broke the story, joining us from Arizona radio station KNAU. His name is Kevin Elston. He speaks to us from Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff was also Specialist Alyssa Peterson’s hometown. Kevin Elston, welcome to Democracy Now!
KEVIN ELSTON: Hi.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have of to have you with us.
KEVIN ELSTON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this case and what you found and how you found it out?
KEVIN ELSTON: Well, yeah, that sums it up. You know, she objected to the interrogation techniques that they were using at that particular base. It’s interesting that it was seven months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. I have to wonder if there’s some connection.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Alyssa’s story, how she came to be in the military.
KEVIN ELSTON: Yeah, she got a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on an ROTC scholarship and then fulfilled her obligation by attending the interrogation school at Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona. She spent a year at, I think it was, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in Arabic language school, before they sent her over there. She was in country for three weeks before she killed herself.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the documents that you were able to get.
KEVIN ELSTON: I got a copy of the death investigation. I got a copy of the criminal investigation and some excerpts from the autopsy. I didn’t get the full autopsy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her family and what her family understood?
KEVIN ELSTON: Her family didn’t really want to know how she died, for their own reasons. I think they suspected that it was a suicide. I talked to her brother the other day, and he said that he suspected it was a suicide, but they all decided that they didn’t want to know the details.
AMY GOODMAN: She was an Arabic-speaking interrogator who was trained at Fort Huachuca?
KEVIN ELSTON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what further information do you have about how she went from there to Iraq, and then exactly what she was doing in Iraq?
KEVIN ELSTON: She was in the — I think it was called the 110th Intelligence Battalion. It’s part of the 101st Airborne Division. Like I say, she did train in Arabic in Kentucky, and then they sent her over there. She was in country for two days before she did her first interrogation. Her second interrogation was the day after that. The day after that, she attended suicide prevention training and requested to be transferred. She said that she could not carry out the interrogation techniques that they were using in the cage, which is what they called the interrogation unit at the Tal Afar Air Base, where she was assigned, and then she was reassigned to the gate, where she interviewed Iraqi workers and monitored Iraqi guards for what they thought might be duplicitous behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: And is there any suggestion that she might have been killed by anyone else, or is it quite clear that she committed suicide at this point?
KEVIN ELSTON: The military investigation concluded that she committed suicide. My understanding is that there was a suicide note found on her body, but I was unable to obtain a copy of that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kevin Elston, host of Weekend Edition on the Arizona radio station KNAU, who has been investigating the case of Flagstaff soldier, Specialist Alyssa Peterson, who was 27 years old, an Arabic-speaking interrogator who trained in Arizona, assigned to a unit at Tal Afar Air Base in northwestern Iraq, and according to a criminal investigation report recently released by the military under the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson had been in Iraq for two weeks and participated in two interrogations. Any further information about those interrogations?
KEVIN ELSTON: No. I was unable to obtain any descriptions of those interrogations, and as I said, the FOIA officer for her unit said that all records of those interrogations had been destroyed as a matter of course when that unit was disbanded, upon returning from Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Did that sound at all unusual to you?
KEVIN ELSTON: It did to me, but I’m not in the military.
AMY GOODMAN: And her parents, her family, her brother, do they want more information?
KEVIN ELSTON: No, they definitely don’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are you going with the story now, Kevin?
KEVIN ELSTON: I’ve been talking with some senior producers on my network and, you know, doing some further investigations. I filed additional FOIA requests, and I’m hoping to find out more information.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kevin Elston, I want to thank you very much for being with us, host of Weekend Edition on the Arizona radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Thank you.