Alyssa Peterson

June 20, 2008 | 28 comments
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I kinda vaguely remember hearing about that LDS woman who was killed in Iraq awhile back.

From the Jan 04 Ensign: “The most recent casualty was United States Army Specialist Alyssa R. Peterson. She was killed in Tel Afar, Iraq, in September 2003 as a result of a noncombat weapons discharge. A member of the Cherry Hill Ward, Flagstaff Arizona Stake, Sister Peterson was in Iraq serving as an Arabic-speaking intelligence specialist assigned to the U.S. Army’s 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. Sister Peterson, 27, served a full-time mission to the Netherlands.”

Alyssa Peterson’s story is included in Boyd Peterson’s “Mormonism and Torture: Paradoxes and First Principles” in the April 2008 Sunstone, where I learned this:

An NPR reporter used a Freedom of Information Act request to find out that she died of a self-inflicted wound. She witnessed interrogation techniques for only two days before refusing to participate any longer. She was re-assigned and sent to suicide prevention training, which, according to the note pinned to her body, taught her how to kill herself.

This is probably the point in the post where I should decry torture or compare George W. Bush to a chimpanzee or tell you to vote for Obama. But I’m not going to do that (and I’m going to request that you not do that in the comments, either).

I just don’t want Alyssa’s story to be unknown or forgotten.

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28 Responses to Alyssa Peterson

  1. Matt W. on June 20, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Life is so fragile

  2. ESO on June 20, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    This story makes me so sad. Thanks for the reminder–must never forget this victim of our war.

  3. A Turtle Named Mack on June 20, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    It’s interesting to me that the Ensign chose to publish the notice of Alyssa’s death. I can’t say I recall having read other notices in the Ensign of those who commit suicide. I’m not saying I disagree with it, just that I find it interesting. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

    (of course, the details may not have been known at the time of publication, either).

  4. Starfoxy on June 20, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    I knew Alyssa’s parents. We moved into their ward a just few months after her death. At the time I knew that their daughter had died in Iraq, but I learned about the circumstances of her death after we moved away a year or so later, when the NPR report came out. I’ve wondered if they knew before then or not. I do know that they were very very proud of her.

  5. ESO on June 20, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Starfoxy–she sounds like someone to be proud of….

  6. Steve Evans on June 20, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Very sad.

  7. Kevin Barney on June 20, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    For some prior discussion, see here:

    http://www.bloggernacle.org/?p=474

  8. Ray on June 20, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    “She witnessed interrogation techniques for only two days before refusing to participate any longer.”

    God bless her. That took incredible courage, which makes her death that much more sobering.

  9. Dan on June 20, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    It was one of the saddest stories that I remember from 2003. When bad men rule, the innocents suffer.

  10. rk on June 20, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Those of us in the civilian world usually fail to appreciate the psychological toll that military takes on during a war. War is messy business. We need to be more appreciative of what they do for us.

    I would also add that we don’t know the full story surrounding this sad situation. It shouldn’t be used to push a political agenda.

  11. jjohnsen on June 20, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Ugh, how horrible does something have to be that participating in it makes you not able to live with the thoughts any longer? I feel so sad for her and the soldiers like her that suffered along with those being interrogated.

  12. Ray on June 20, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Read this. It is profound, even if is was written for that other blog:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2008/05/memorial-day-the-costs-of-war-and-those-who-bear-them/

  13. jose on June 20, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    The news nightly reports the number of deaths each day. Unfortunately the worse casualty of war is our humanity. Sister Peterson is not the first (nor the last) who was faced with the dilemma of war and Godly peace. Given her good Mormon resume, hopefully her sad story may help disabuse some in the Mormon community of equating suicide with unpardonable damnation.

  14. Julie M. Smith on June 20, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Kevin, thanks for that link. Somehow I missed that post.

  15. Anonymous today on June 20, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Alyssa was my friend. She was a wonderful, kind person. I couldn’t even bear to offer my condolences to her brother when I saw him last because I am still so angry that she died in this stupid war. She was a good moral person and her blood is on Bush’s hands. How many wonderful people have to die for his total lack of judgment? It sickens me that they still defend torture.

  16. Talisyn on June 20, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    I have 2 brothers who served in Iraq, and now have 1 sister and her husband over there now. Many people come back from there ok, like my older brother. But many come back broken in places that take a lot of time to heal, like my little brother. I don’t even remember the number of times he’s tried to commit suicide this past year >

  17. Non-Arab Arab on June 20, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Alyssa is a true martyr to principles of truth and basic human goodness. But I want to remind everyone that for every 1 sad story of a broken American that has come out of Iraq, there are 1000 sad stories of Iraqis, many of whom don’t even have a home or family to go home too now that we have deconstructed Iraq. How many of their names do we know? Why do we at best only given passing recognition to them if at all? Is not every human life equal before God and are we not supposed to care for one the same as another? So why then do 1000 shattered Iraqi families not receive even 1/1000th the attention 1 shattered American family does? Especially for us as believers in the Gospel of Christ who know the eternal nature of every spirit and God’s equal love for us all?

  18. Nat Whilk on June 21, 2008 at 9:11 am

    @ #17:

    How many of their names do we know?

    About as many as we know of Saddam Hussein’s victims.

    Why do we at best only given passing recognition to them if at all?

    There aren’t enough hours in the day to give more than passing recognition to every sad story. There are lots of sad stories just in my own ward. I doubt that any T&S reader other than myself has given more than passing recognition to them.

  19. Non-Arab Arab on June 21, 2008 at 11:44 am

    “About as many as we know of Saddam Hussein’s victims.”

    The American mass graves in Iraq now contain more bodies than Saddam’s mass graves, and we filled them at a much faster pace.

    “There aren’t enough hours in the day to give more than passing recognition to every sad story”

    And yet we find a lot more passing recognition to those like us who are on “our side”, but almost none for those on the other side. I am not pretending we have the capability to properly mourn every innocent victim, what I am saying is that if we have X capacity to dedicate mourning and resources to innocent victims, we are clearly giving 99% of X to 1% of the victims. The imbalance is stark.

  20. Ray on June 21, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    #19 – NAA, source for your first sentence – and clarification on its meaning?

  21. Joshua Madson on June 21, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I wrote about Alyssa Peterson a while back. The
    article
    I wrote was one of many linked to at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I will be discussing torture and her case at the upcoming Sunstone Conference.

    Alyssa is one of the many victims. To an extent I think we failed her. As a nation, maybe as a people. Soldiers are told great reasons for fighting and torture whether it is life, freedom, etc. But the human soul cannot torture another and not feel some despair regardless of the reasons given by national and religious leaders.

  22. Joshua Madson on June 21, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I believe Marshall Witt at a recent rally here in Utah suggested that there is some evidence she may have been asked to sexualize the interrogation. We have evidence this occurred on other occasions. To date, the information on what actually occurred in the cage is classified. Another LDS return missionary, Kayla Williams, who knew Alyssa and was in Tal-Afar with Alyssa has stated that what was done violated Geneva Conventions.

  23. Clair on June 21, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    “She witnessed interrogation techniques for only two days before refusing to participate any longer. She was re-assigned and sent to suicide prevention training, which, according to the note pinned to her body, taught her how to kill herself.”

    Alyssa’s death is sad, but I see no reason to assume that it was related to her interrogation training rather than any other 2-day activity in her life. Her death is now being used for propaganda purposes. People should consider whether Alyssa would have wanted that.

  24. Joshua Madson on June 21, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Clair,

    She went to her superiors and complained specifically of what occurred during interrogation. While we dont have the suicide note, since the govt wont release it, we have many surrounding facts and details that point towards her death being specifically related to what occurred in the cage.

  25. Ray on June 21, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Clair, we are not using her death for propaganda here. I have no idea what she would have wanted, but a sincere, open discussion of the situation in a forum like this can’t be a bad thing.

    Having said that, I agree that there is nothing more for me to contribute.

  26. Bookslinger on June 22, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Similar things happened in Vietnam. I know a Vietnam veteran who was a nurse there, who attempted suicide in Vietnam after seeing deaths in triage (both preventable and unpreventable), and the way she was sometimes blamed by her superiors. I’ve associated with Vietnam veterans and Desert Storm veterans for years, and can tell that you suicides among soldiers, and more so among veterans is not a new thing.

    Tragedies happen in _every_ war, to all sides, to our side, to their side, to the good guys, to the bad guys.

    Therefore I agree with #23, Clair’s comment. You can’t specifically lay the suicide at the feet of the torture/interrogation. That may have been a triggering event, but probably not a root cause.

    As one nurse at a Veterans’ hospital told me about all the “broken souls” and suicides among American servicemen who returned from Vietnam, “We didn’t send perfect people to Vietnam.” And we still don’t send perfect soldiers to any war.

    Suicide among veterans is extremely high, and has been since records have been kept. (And before records of veteran suicide were kept, many such suicides were usually covered up by coroners to prevent public embarrassment to families.) (And our military still covers up embarrassing deaths, such as friendly-fire fatalities).

    If anything, this points to our military’s track record of not taking good enough care of our servicemen’s and veterans’ mental health. But this also is a problem that goes a long way back to all modern wars, and probably to all wars.

    Military service in a war zone, or in war time is a huge stressor. Not everyone emotionally survives it. A lot of people break (to varying degrees) under that stress. It wasn’t until the Vietnam era, that PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) started to be understood. In WWI it was called shell-shock, in WWII it was called battle-fatigue.

    Even in the church, we have attempted-suicides among our own full time missionaries, and actual suicides among our RM’s, where the triggering factor or proximal cause is their mission experience, which sometimes includes abuse, violence, and threats of violence from other missionaries.

    If we now acknowledge that we need to filter out prospective missionaries who aren’t capable of withstanding the emotional rigors of mission life, how much more so do we need to acknowledge that there are many people who aren’t capable of withstanding the _far_ more ghastly realties of a live shooting war?

    I don’t know what it is now, but immediately prior to the “raise-the-bar”, we even had state-side missions where nearly 50% of the missionaries were on Prozac or other psychotropic drugs. I heard that factoid direct from a former mission president talking about his own mission.

    My point here is not to excuse military interrogation techniques. My two points are:

    1) we don’t send perfectly well-adjusted people to war, so let’s not lay this at the feet of interrogation techniques or other factors of war-time/war-zone service, nor use it for political purposes.

    2) Let’s take better care of our servicmen’s and veterans’ health. They suffer the rigors and wounds (whether physical or mental) of military service for our collective benefit, and so we owe it to them. Such care may even need to involve some pre-service screening to some degree, perhaps even depending on MOS.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 23, 2008 at 1:05 am

    It seems likely that Sister Peterson refused an order to participate in the interrogations, and was threatened with a court-martial. If she had come to me as her military defense counsel, I would have advised her that, in order to prosecute her, the Army prosecutor would have to arrange to have the circumstances of the interrogations declassified, or recognize that once she was convicted and discharged, they would have no means of preventing complete disclosure of the information. It is in fact highly unlikely that any prosecution would have been undertaken under those circumstances. But my guess is that, because of what happened, she did not seek legal advice.

    She could have also filed a complaint with the Inspector General or written to her representatives in Congress, without disclosing specific classified details of the interrogations. Both types of communications are statutorily protected. Again, she may not have appreciated her rights to use those channels.

    If she was a member of a Reserve or National Guard unit, it is possible she was less well trained in some of her basic legal rights and options. If she was affiliated with the Reserve unit that was most directly involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses, she would have been in what appears to have been a nonprofessional unit in which many of the positions were held by people whose civilian occupations were as guards in US prisons, an environment that is notorious for abuse of prisoners and corruption every day of the year. Full time professional soldiers receive training in their rights and their duties to the law over and above the orders of a single commander, training that Reservists may never get to. Abuse of power by superiors is something we are warned against in the context of the Church itself. That it can happen in the military as well should not be a surprise.

    The story of torture, real and simulated or threatened, in the warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan is very much a story of civilian leadership, which is expected in our constitutional system to restrain the historical tendencies of armed forces to threaten freedom, actually acting as an agent to disregard historical precedent in the face of the resistance of military officers, including JAG officers, resisting departure from the normal rules of interrogation. The JAG Corps of the military services have institutionalized the rule of law in the US military.

    One might be able to make a case that, in the particular circumstance where we knew there was an imminent threat of mass murder, an argument could be made for torture to find a nuclear weapon hidden in a city. Certainly, the nation would be skeptical about any president who said that he was unwilling to torture a terrorist simply to save the lives of thousands of innocent Americans. And we already know that our pilots are prepared to shoot down a civilian airliner, and kill hundreds of innocent passengers, if it would prevent the death of thousands on the ground. We would think shooting down an airliner intentionally would be a horrendous and inexcusable crime, except with our new perspective that there are even worse things that can happen.

    However, there is no evidence that any of the people who were degraded and tortured in Iraq or elsewhere had anything like that kind of crucial information about an imminent threat. To refuse an order to participate was to properly disobey an illegal order, which is a complete defense. I would have been happy to defend Sister Peterson against such a charge, and I believe most JAG officers would say the same thing. It appears that she was a victim of the same sadism in her immediate superiors that she had repudiated.

  28. Eric Boysen on June 23, 2008 at 9:22 am

    “If she was a member of a Reserve or National Guard unit, it is possible she was less well trained in some of her basic legal rights and options.”

    In eleven years of active duty, the sum total of the training I received in this area was a one hour class in ROTC, maybe an hour each in OBC and OAC, and a book I had to read for CGSC. Of course, just putting the uniform on every day for a decade makes it more likely that I thought about such things than a counterpart who was only in uniform on weekends, but my reservist peers should have received the same training. A Specialist can not be expected to have the same level of exposure as an officer, but I would not be suprised if such questions were not on the minds of those soldiers in Intelligence or Military Police AIT who had to know that they would be on the edge.