Marines make cellblock home

25 May 2004 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

Down the dirt road, through the gate, past a graffiti-covered mural of Saddam Hussein in green fatigues, is a cellblock tucked into the corner of Living Support Area Shadow.

The prisoners once held here by Hussein's regime are gone. Whiteboards with watch rotations and computer printouts of camp regulations have sprung up in the hallways.

Charged with protecting both the inmates and the guards of Abu Ghraib Prison, the Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment have made the two-tiered cellblock their home.

The bars of the cells have been covered with plywood, and new doors have been constructed. The walls inside the cells have been painted over in bright, fresh hues of white and blue.

Inside, the Marines have set up home entertainment centers, with TVs, DVD players and video game systems.

"All the Army guys spent a lot of money getting stuff sent over here, so we bought it off of them," said Lance Cpl. John David, a radio operator with 2nd Platoon. "We're infantry, so we thought we'd be living in a bivy sack and out of our patrol packs. All things considered, it's a lot better than we thought we'd have it."

The prison's cell blocks were far less comfortable before the prison was emptied by Saddam Hussein in the days before coalition forces moved north to remove his regime last year. Dissidents were often tortured and executed by members of his security apparatus.

"When you looked in the rooms then they were empty... do you know the saying, 'If the walls could talk?'" David asked.  "You know some horrible things happened here."

It's something that can't be completely washed away by the new paint job.

"If you think about what happened here - people were probably killed in the room I'm living in," said 1st Sgt. Brendan Fitzgerald, the company first sergeant. "This place has got a lot of history to it."

Fitzgerald, a native of Fredricksberg, Va., arrived at the prison with the advanced party on March 1. He has kept a journal that tracks mortar attacks since then - sixteen in all, according to his records. The worst attack came April 20, killing 14 detainees and wounding nearly 100 more.

Since offensive operations in Fallujah halted, attacks on the prison have slowed considerably.

"Force protection isn't the most glamorous job in the world, but it's a very important task, and my Marines have done nothing but impressed me since day one," said Maj. Luke Kratky, the company commander. "The Marines showed nothing but sturdy professionalism and steady discipline."

Kratky and his Marines worry that their good work at the prison could be overshadowed by the actions of several military policemen who were photographed abusing detainees.

"Our biggest concern is going home, and our family and friends (could) think we were a part of the abuse, even though we were not even activated yet (when the abuse occurred)."

It's a concern shared by Sgt. Kimberly Payne, an intelligence analyst with Marine Forces Reserve augmenting Multi-National Corps Iraq's Fusion Analysis Cell. Looking around one of the camp's few green spots - a small garden located in a courtyard surrounded by the secured building - she reflected on her eventual homecoming.

"It'll be weird," said Sgt. Kimberly Payne. "When we get back, and people ask me what I did, I don't know if I want them to tell them I was at Abu Ghraib."

Editor's note: This is the second of three stories in a series about Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment at Abu Ghraib Prison.