Healing the prisoners

A grandmother from Blaine at Abu Ghraib

Deanna Germain wrote about her experiences as a nurse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in her recently released book “Reaching Past the Wire.” (Photo courtesy of Deanna Germain.)
Deanna Germain wrote about her experiences as a nurse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in her recently released book “Reaching Past the Wire.” (Photo courtesy of Deanna Germain.)

Deanna Germain, author of “Reaching Past the Wire: a Nurse at Abu Ghraib,” took a sip of her coffee and thought back 37 years, to the days when she was a young nursing student from a poor family. “It was 1970, and I didn’t have enough money to finish nursing school,” she said.

Germain and some other friends in the same situation joined the Army as a way to get the rest of their tuition paid. The deal was that the Army would pay for their last year of nursing school, and in return, they’d serve two years of active duty.

After completing nursing school, Germain received her orders in the fall of 1971: She was part of a group that would be sent to Vietnam. “My mother was beside herself,” Germain recalled. She dodged a bullet, so to speak, when it turned out that only half of the group would go to Vietnam. Germain spent her two active-duty years in San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Gordon, Ga.

Operation Iraqi Freedom
She wasn’t so lucky 32 years later. In the winter of 2003, Germain was a first-time grandmother who adored her 9-month-old daughter Yasmine, nicknamed Ya Ya. She had a new job, too, as a nurse practitioner in a pain clinic. She and Dave, her husband of 30 years, were thinking about buying a lake cabin. But she was still in the Army, though now a reservist.

Germain watched the news about the situation in Iraq with a very personal interest, knowing she could well be deployed as part of a combat hospital support unit. She got used to fielding calls from worried friends and relatives who wondered if she’d heard anything.

It was still a punch in the gut when she opened the door to a mail carrier with a certified letter that she immediately knew contained her activation orders. They were immediate: in six days, Lieutenant Colonel Germain was to report for 365 days of active duty. Purpose: “For enduring freedom.”

On March 19, 2003-18 days after Germain reported for duty-U.S., Australian, Polish and the British troops invaded Iraq. Baghdad fell on April 9. At the end of April, Germain got her orders for Kuwait. After serving at the Kuwait Armed Forces Hospital in Kuwait City for a year, she was ordered to the hospital in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq-an assignment she dreaded with, it turned out, good reason.

The worst assignment in Iraq
“I stepped out of the plane and a first sergeant saluted me and said, ‘Welcome to Baghdad, Ma’am, and the worst assignment in Iraq,'” Germain recalled. The words were barely out of his mouth when mortar fire exploded nearby. Germain and the other soldiers threw themselves to the ground.

The new arrivals were told that along with treating prisoners and injured soldiers, they were responsible for guarding the hospital. They were to have their helmet, body armor, and weapon with them at all times, or risk disciplinary action.

When Germain arrived at the hospital that would be her home, she was shocked to find a building surrounded by wire and rubble. Some of the buildings had partially collapsed roofs. Soldiers were searching the grounds, looking for body parts from the most recent mortar attack. The smell, she said, of bodies both newly and long dead was indescribable and unforgettable.

There were more than 4,500 prisoners at Abu Ghraib; prisoners were the bulk of the patients Germain cared for. She learned that soldiers only went outside when necessary because of the oppressive heat and ever-present danger of mortar fire. Her sleeping quarters were a cell full of debris that initially had no electricity (she used a flashlight to change clothing). Even when electricity became available, generators often failed. Temperatures were frequently higher than 100 degrees. She slept on a cot with a cardboard box for a nightstand.

Germain did not talk to friends and family about how bad it really was. She found that most people did not want to know the details; it was hard enough having her so far away, in a war zone, without knowing the depths of the danger she faced and the grimness of her daily existence.

Individual relationships
Though Germain’s book discusses the hardships at Abu Ghraib, it may be her relationships with the prisoners and Iraqi translators that leave the most lasting impression on readers. Some of the other soldiers were unhappy that many of those they cared for were “the enemy-in some cases, even Al Qaeda members. “They felt they had not been trained to do this.” Some of those, she said, “thought that some of the nurses ‘babied’ prisoners … some of those soldiers did not properly engage with the prisoners early on.” While many changed their views and actions, she said, some never did. Germain said that it was clear to her that the vast majority of the detainees were innocent of any crime; some were brought in only because they had injuries, yet they had to wait in the camp to be processed and treated.

Germain treated the prisoners as individuals. Early on she faced caring for a young Marine who died and the Arab man who had likely shot him. Germain cared for both with compassion. She asked the Arab man about his family, and when it became apparent he, too would die, she prayed for his wife and two little girls.

Germain got to know the six Iraqi translators well and became close to several of them. The translators risked their lives to ensure that the patients and healers could communicate with each other. The very fact that they worked with Americans put them in peril; they were not able to tell those close to them where they worked, and they were in constant jeopardy that a detainee would recognize them.

The translators emphasized to Germain that they got along, as did many Iraqs, despite their sectarian differences. Four of them posed for a picture she took with their arms around each other. “‘This is the picture we want you to take back to states,'” they told her. “We are Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish … you make too much of our differences. We are brothers.” It was the youngest and the mostly devoutly Muslim translator, a 23-year-old man she called ‘Prince,’ that Germain became closest to. She learned about his life, and they had long discussions … discussions that continue today. Though it would be dangerous to Prince for Germain to call him, they stay in touch through his phone calls to her.

While Germain was caring for prisoners and building relationships, the world was learning about the abuse of prisoners that had occurred before she arrived there. It was an email from her sister, Pat, that alerted Germain to the breaking news about the prisoners who had been abused prior to Germain’s arrival. It was the first Germain had heard of it. Most of the other soldiers she worked with had, like her, come to Abu Ghraib after the abuse occurred, and, like her, they also heard about it for the first time from family or friends on the outside, though some told her they had heard rumors.

Germain was angry that the abuse had occurred, and also angry that suddenly she and her colleagues, healers all, were under a microscope. The world media descended. Germain wrote: “We felt the disdain and dislike from a great many reporters who toured our facility … one of the only friendly faces I recall was that of a middle-aged British woman who stopped and greeted me with a warm smile. ‘It is a difficult job you are doing,’ she said.”

Home away from home
One of the most striking parts of Germain’s book is near the end, when she writes of going home on emergency leave to be with her husband after he had surgery. Though she was very glad to see her husband and daughter, she wrote: “I felt disconnected from everyone and everything. I couldn’t allow myself to feel like I was home because I couldn’t stay.”

Germain said she was afraid to let herself get close to those she loved at home. “I’m the kind of person, my way of protecting myself and coping, is to remind myself, ‘I’m going to have to leave this.'” She told herself to pretend that she was in a hotel room. “I couldn’t attach at all … I knew if I did, going back would be so awful.”

Fittingly, the title of the next chapter is “Back Home at Abu Ghraib,” which begins, “… I was happy to see my cell was still waiting for me, just as I had left it.” Germain stayed in Iraq just two more months. She arrived home for good on August 21, 2004.

Home for good
Today, Germain seems in some ways to have slipped back into the life she left when she packed her bag, updated her will, and said goodbye to her husband at Fort Snelling. She is back at work. The granddaughter she left behind is a kindergartner who refers to Grandma’s uniforms and camouflage as “bad-guy clothes,” and she has another granddaughter too. Her husband is better. The lake cabin she dreamed of is now a reality. She’s written the book, and is busy promoting it.

But Germain herself has been profoundly changed by her experience. She is, today, a much more private person, she said. “I am a quieter person, more thoughtful, much more introspective. I think things through, process things more. I used to think my contribution was being in a zillion organizations. I’ve realized I spread myself thin. I don’t need to be in everything. I am now more confident in saying no.

“I remember many, many years ago, in the second or third grade, my sister and I heard something said about ourselves … ‘those two, for being poor, are really bright students.’ We made a personal pact that day to be better than the best … more than anyone would expect from us. That tape played throughout my whole life.” She no longer feels that way. She retired from the service a lieutenant colonel. “And I was OK with that. Once I wouldn’t have been-once, being a colonel would have been OK, being a one-star [general] would have been better.”

Though she has given up on “doing it all,” Germain wants, she said, to focus on doing one or two projects really well. One she is mulling: working to get asylum status for Iraqi translators. In particular, she wants to help the young man she calls Prince to come to this country-if he wants to.

Her transition at home wasn’t a seemless one-for Germain or her family. When Germain was in Iraq, her husband, Dave “felt he had to support the war because I was over there,” Germain said. That caused, she said, some rifts and tears in the relationships between some family members and friends.

Her own re-entry took longer than she expected. It was about nine months before she really felt like herself again. “I’ve been three years back. It took me … goodness, to really get home … I was home at the end of August, it wasn’t until the next spring that I was kind of feeling like me again.

“That winter was miserable. We are very active in outdoor sports, snowmobiling. I didn’t do any of that. It wasn’t until the spring, really the start of the summer, when everything was green, that I came home. I remember I was up at the lake, looking at sunrises, sunsets.

“I realized that I felt OK again.”

Her view of the war
“My attitude about the war changed once I was in Iraq,” Deanna Germain said. “In Kuwait, we did our work [caring for soldiers]. It seemed like [troops in Iraq] was the right thing to do. I was still so hopeful that things could change, that [our troops] could make a difference for the Iraqi people.

“Once I got to Iraq, to Abu Ghraib … I saw that things were not improving.” Germain said that while she knew that much of the lack of water and electricity could be attributed to the bombing of insurgents, she became less and less hopeful that the presence of foreign troops would make a positive difference in the lives of Iraqi citizens. Today, she is critical of beginning a war that had no plan; the situation was, she said, to “let chaos rule.” But she worries that an abrupt pullout of troops would cause “bad things to happen,” and said, “Strategically and morally, we are responsible.” She would like to see milestones met, progress made. It makes no sense to her to pour more troops into the war as it stands. “Americans are very good if we see there’s progress; we’re kind and generous people,” Germain said.

Reaching Past the Wire, a Nurse at Abu Ghraib
 by Deanna Germain Lieutenant Colonel, USAR (Retired) with Connie Lounsbury
Published by Minnesota Historical Society