by Bonnie Lynn Dunlop
"ANOTHER DAY WITH NO WATER!" RANTED CAROL, OUR CIVILIAN interpreter. Carol was a robust, graying widow who normally wore her body armor without complaint as we trudged around the dust and debris of Abu Ghraib prison.
She stormed into our windowless quarters and flicked on the light switch. The room was a fifteen-foot square with a ceiling that was higher than the walls around it. Except for the raised plywood boards that passed for beds, there was no furniture except a steel gray Army-issue wall locker. House Beautiful would have called it "rugged chic."
"There hasn't been a water delivery in three days!" she moaned. "I smell so bad even the mosquitoes won't come near me!"
"The convoy must be running into trouble with insurgents along the route," I reasoned, my voice thick with sleep.
Carol was one of three females that belonged to our "mobile training team," the other two being Drew, an Army interrogator, and yours truly, the "judge advocate general," which is just a fancy way of saying Army lawyer. We'd all been sent here in March of 2005, in the aftermath of the scandal that made this place infamous. Broadly, our job was to train Iraqis in the art of (legal) interrogation. My specific role was to observe our new interrogators and make sure they didn't make the same mistakes our disgraced predecessors—it pains me to call them soldiers—had made. In my spare time, I fantasized about suing the recruiter who promised me that the Army never sent its lawyers to war.
Drew entered the room behind Carol. A petite mother of three in her early thirties, Drew hardly looks like the former drill sergeant that she is. She and Carol are both Muslim, and they'd risen at 04:45 for morning prayers.
I had been sleeping in, which means my alarm was set for 05:15. As the florescent glare of the overhead lights assaulted my eyes, I heard the familiar clank of metal as Drew laid her M16 on top of her helmet.
I propped myself up on my elbows but made no attempt to wiggle out of my sleeping bag. The smell from the bag assaulted my nostrils; it reminded me of an unwashed gym sock that had been left around a locker room for several years. The stench was a combination of the person who had been issued the bag before me—no, it hadn't been washed before being reissued—and my own odor, which had been increasing over the last three waterless days. Since I had no means of washing either myself or the bag, I decided to look on the bright side. Why get up if there's no water to bathe in? Now I could probably stay in this nasty sleeping bag till 05:30.
I reached under my "bed:' grabbed my travel-size plastic box of baby wipes, and offered it to my teammates. Carol just glared at the box (she liked to wallow in misery), but Drew pulled out a couple of sheets.
"Thanks;" she said.
Drew had stopped addressing me as "ma'am" after we arrived two weeks before. All three of us were now "sterile," an Army term that means we weren't supposed to communicate in a way that would reveal anyone's rank. We used aliases, too, to conceal our real identities (and I'm using the same aliases in this story).
Drew wiped under her arms and told me, "Make sure you leave some wipes for your boys—they're gonna need 'em, too."
The boys Drew was referring to were the Iraqi interrogators we were tasked to train. Their quarters were in the same building as ours, so we were together almost constantly. Initially, I had steeled myself to be distrustful of them. My commanding officer had instructed me to assume they were all dangerous spies, capable of fashioning an explosive device from my hairpins if left unsupervised for even just a few seconds. But I softened almost immediately after meeting them. One came dressed in Iraqi Special Forces regalia but spoke softly and respectfully when he described the work he'd been doing with U.S. soldiers. Another quizzed me relentlessly on American country music. (I had to explain that the ring of fire Johnny Cash sang about had nothing to do with sexually transmitted diseases.) And several of them told me heartbreaking stories of how beautiful Iraq was before Saddam, and how desperately they wanted that life again.
Unfortunately, the boys had arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Apparently no one had bothered to tell them that once the forty-five-day training program began, they wouldn't be allowed to leave the Abu Ghraib complex, for security reasons. (Again, the Army was concerned about infil tration by insurgent spies.) No going home to their families at night, no watching Iraqi soaps on television, no more Turkish coffee in the cafés—and no way to do their laundry. We had no washing machines on the post, so we sent our clothes out to be laundered. But as I mentioned, the boys had only one set of clothes. It was a real dilemma.
The simple solution would have been to buy them some more clothes. And there was, in fact, a shop on the post. Unfortunately, all they had were souvenir T-shirts that said things like happiness is abu ghraib in my rearview mirror. Somehow, suggesting to Iraqi citizens that they purchase Abu Ghraib memorabilia didn't seem like a step in the right direction toward winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
In the first few days of the program, the boys, without a word of complaint, had taken to washing their clothes in the mobile sinks assembled in a small white trailer outside our quarters. But now the water supply had dried up. And even though it was only springtime, the temperature reached one hundred degrees on most days. There was only so much a box of baby wipes could do. Now the smell from the six MTT members, combined with the scent of seventeen sets of unwashed clothes, made our entire hovel smell like a decomposing desert rat that had died as a result of devouring too many raw onions.
"Why can't someone do something about the stench?" begged Carol, a look of genuine agony on her face.
It was a rhetorical question. But right at that moment, my eyes fell on a glass bottle of Tommy Hilfiger men's cologne that was sitting on a shelf in the wall locker. My boyfriend,
Sean, had given it to me prior to my deployment. "Whenever you start missing me," he said, "just smell the bottle and I'll be there." And I had. But now it was time to use it in a less romantic way. First I sprayed myself, then offered the bottle to Carol and Drew, who both accepted.
I considered offering some to the boys, but that just seemed rude. Then another idea began to gel in my mind. When the Iraqis had first arrived, Carol told me they were enthralled by all things American. So—partly out of a genuine wish to share my culture and partly to amuse myself—I'd taken to leaving little gifts for them on the table in the coffee area. First I left a box of Oreos. Then a bag of Snickers. Then some marshmal-low Peeps leftover from an Easter care package. Each time, they would devour my gifts in no time flat.
"Carol," I said, "your suffering may soon come to an end."
I rushed into the coffee area and placed the bottle of cologne right next to a box of (now empty) Nature Valley Granola Bars. And within a few hours, the stench had been replaced— or at least masked—by the scent of Sean.
Bonnie Lynn Dunlop is a judge advocate in the U.S. Army. she is currently stationed in Marheim, Germany, with her only child, a boxer named Natasha.
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