Reserve Marines stand vigil between Iraqi towns, Hussein's legacy

25 Jun 2004 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

"Come get your ice!" the sergeant of the guard yells.

Out of a stout, squared-off hole in the base of the wall emerges a Marine decked out in full body armor. He grabs two bags of ice from the cooler and heads back into the hole and up a thin, winding staircase through the darkness.

At the top, a plywood board gives way to the light.

The guard post, one of several dotting the walls of Abu Ghraib Prison, is reinforced with sandbags and covered in camouflaged netting for shade. General orders of a sentry and radio call signs are scribbled on cardboard with a black felt-tipped marker and hung on the walls. In the corner sits a short, stout cooler, where old water is dumped out over the side and the fresh bags of ice are dumped in.

The Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment have manned those towers, providing security for the prison nestled between two highways going from Baghdad to Fallujah since March.

"In the first couple of weeks, (anti-Iraqi forces) tried to push the envelope with us," said Maj. Luke Kratsky, the company's commanding officer. "They've realized that once we set the standard, we keep it. We've got nothing but good comments from the Army, all the way up to the general officer level, on the improvements here."

Lance Cpl. David West, a native of Scottsburg, Ind., mans the guard post overlooking the nearby village that has been nicknamed "Little Mogadishu," for its resemblance to the Somalian city where an Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in 1993.

Unlike its namesake, Little Mog has caused few problems for the Marines on post.

"It's pretty quiet," he said.

Like his fellow Marines at the front gate, West is often visited by children from the village.

"We always throw them candy, hygiene gear, water -stuff we get shipped from home," he said. "Some guys are giving them shoes and skivvie shirts."

West said the children sometimes ask the Marines about the abuse committed by military policemen before the Marines' arrival.

"The kids that come up here ask what's going on. They've obviously seen the pictures. But they tell us 'America good, Saddam bad.'"

When the prison was still under the management of the former regime, many residents of the nearby village were held there.

"Some of their parents have been killed in this prison," said West. "A kid named 'Ice' says his dad was hung in here, by Saddam."

One of the buildings at Abu Ghraib was a place where many Iraqis, including possibly Ice's father, were executed. The gate to the courtyard surrounding it was locked up after coalition forces arrived.

Inside the heavy metal door, into the empty main room and down the hall to the left sits a single hallway of cells, with doors barely wide enough for a man to squeeze through. The top halves of the walls are haphazardly painted black, and long streaks dried of paint rund down over the aged white below like water running down a windshield.

At the other end of the building is a single room, with a ramp leading up to platform on the far wall. Two rusted steel trap doors are set into the floor, beneath two rebar loops set into the ceiling. Between them sits a box with two flat, thin white levers.

"They would throw a rope through there," said Staff Sgt. Tommy Weatherholtz, the platoon sergeant for Weapons Platoon, pointing to the ceiling, "make a noose, tie it right here - and whoosh, drop the floor."

Beneath the platform on the floor below, a single brown sandal sits, collecting dust.

Weatherholtz only knows that thousands of people were executed there. He doesn't know how many of them are buried nearby.

"Have you seen any grass growing around this place?" Weatherholtz asks. "A little bit, maybe?"

He leaves the building and steps out into the front courtyard, where occasional strands of green reach up to scrape ankles, and walks around to the back of the building.

Nearby, a bloodied piece of gauze is tied around a pipe protruding from the building's walls. The grass here is thick, taller than the children who gather around the guard post.

Outside the walls surrounding the execution chamber, Marines on the towers continue their vigil over the prison. Their future is uncertain. After June 30, when the coalition transfers sovereignty to the new Iraqi government, detainees will be turned over to Iraqi forces. Until then, their place is in the towers, and on the gates.

"(A representative of the Army Liason Team) said, 'Knowing that Marines have all the perimeter security lets us sleep better at night," said 1st Sgt. Brendan Fitzgerald, the company first sergeant.

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