But sitting at a table at Applebee’s, Lynndie England looks like anyone else, eating a roast beef sandwich and French fries for lunch. She’s grown out her hair since 2004, when her photos were plastered on newspapers and Web sites across the world. She’s wearing a hat—an attempt to hide her identity.
But her face is the same. Round, freckled with small eyes and a large smile. She can’t change that. She says she’s recognized, even when she tries to hide.
“I guarantee it when we were over at Applebee’s eating, there was people looking. I noticed it,” she says matter-of-factly later. “You might not have. I’m used to it by now. I don’t really think about it but I notice it still.”
Now, England is living in a trailer in Fort Ashby, a tiny town in Mineral County. Her immediate family lives close by.
England’s hair is streaked with gray, even though she’s only 26 years old. The past five years have aged England in a lot of ways, she says. But most aren’t noticeable.
“Well I’ve definitely been through a lot of crap,” she said. “People only learn from their mistakes and as many as I’ve been through I’ve learned a lot. I’d say I’ve always been more emotionally mature than most people. I just feel like I’m middle-aged, I really do.
“I mean I’ve already been married, divorced, had a child, been to war, been to jail. I mean, so many things that people do one of those things in their life and I’ve done all of them”
After the scandal broke at Abu Ghraib, England became a household name. Her only authorized biography came out in June. It’s not the first book to take on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but England says it’s the first to tell the story through her eyes.
“I wanted to find a way to get my side of the story out,” she said.
She says when the pictures were leaked, people thought of her as a villain, a monster.
“And really, I’m not like that at all.”
It’s hard to picture England as a monster. She’s serious, but quick to break into laughter. Her face softens and she smiles as she describes the latest antics of her four year old son, Carter.
But there are those photos. In one, England stands holding a tie down strap attached to the neck of a naked prisoner. In another, a cigarette hangs out of one corner of her mouth as she grins and points to a prisoner’s genitals.
These scenes were just a regular part of life for the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, she says.
“Yeah I mean, it was just normal everyday activity to us there,” she said. “When we got there we just took over. That stuff was happening before we got there and after we left. It was like the passing of the baton. That’s just the stuff that was going on there. We were told to continue on with it, to keep doing it.”
For England, the abuse was never at the forefront of her mind.
She was twenty years old and in a war zone. And she was in love. Her boyfriend, Corporal Charles Graner, exercised a lot of influence over England. She describes him as “a photo nut,” and when he asked her to pose for pictures she never said no.
She says she didn’t want to obey him, but she also didn’t want to disappoint him.
“He was a former Marine, he was in one war already, he was kind of like my security blanket over there, I guess in the back of my mind, and I didn’t want to lose that,” she said. “So when he would bring up the whole issue of doing this or that and he’d be like ‘well if you love me you’ll do this,’ so I would do it under protest but I would do it.
“Whether it’s being in a picture or taking a picture.”
In the prison, England’s job was similar to a human resources position at a large company. She checked prisoners in, verified their information, fingerprinted them. She wasn’t even supposed to be in the cell blocks, but she visited Graner there often. England says she witnessed the abuse, but never participated in it.
“They wanted me to be in some pictures and I was in a picture,” she said.
“If you really pay attention to the pictures you can see you know I’m not wearing any gloves so I never actually touched any of them. You know, I never actually had any physical part of any of it. If you actually read my charge sheet I was charged with everything by posing in a picture. So that’s all that I was found guilty of was being in a picture. That’s all I did,” she said.”
There were six other soldiers who faced prosecution from the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Graner was sentenced to ten years in prison. England received the third-longest sentence, but she’s not sure why she got more time than people with assault charges.
While she was in prison, England gave birth to her son Carter. They gave her maternity fatigues, she says, and she wore boots until almost the end of her pregnancy, when her feet were too swollen to fit.
England says Graner is Carter’s father, but he has never acknowledged paternity. In many ways, England blames Graner for who happened to her, but she says she doesn’t entirely regret meeting him.
“None of this would’ve happened if I wouldn’t have met [Graner], but somewhere out there the powers that be wanted me and him to get together for that moment in time to conceive my son,” she said. “Carter’s supposed to be here for one reason for another and I wouldn’t change that because he’s my son, I wouldn’t want him taken away. Even after all the crap that I’ve been through.
“That’s the one positive that I’ve gotten out of all this”
Now, England’s days are mostly spent taking care of Carter, who is now almost five years old. She’s tried to get a job, but says the felony charge on her record as well as her notoriety scare away the few employers in the Fort Ashby area.
She says she’s not sure how she’s going to explain the past few years to Carter. He’s seen pictures of her in the newspaper, she says, and pretty soon she thinks he’ll start asking questions.
Public opinion hasn’t been kind to England since 2004. Part of that could have stemmed from the fact that in the past she hasn’t seemed sorry for her role in the scandal. Now that time has passed, England looks back and tries to explain the bigger picture.
“Yes, I regret that the pictures got leaked because that cost a lot of lives, coalition forces’ lives because the insurgencies spiked once [the pictures] came out,” she said. “And you know, thinking back on this whole thing right now, I would want to say that I regret being in the pictures and taking the pictures but then on another level I’m thinking none of this would’ve came to light if it wasn’t for those pictures.
“All this crap would still be going on. And it probably still is, I would not doubt it. And all this stuff that came out about the Bush administration would still be secret. The public eye wouldn’t know about it.”
It’s been easy for England to blame the incident on everyone besides herself. The government, a wartime mentality and Graner all played a role, she says.
“Yeah I would say, yeah I was a pawn of Graner, I was a pawn of the government, I mean I was twenty years old I was so naïve about everything,” she said. “I swear, thinking back on it now I was so trusting, and now I’m really wary about who I trust, so lesson learned.”
Like most young people, England says she’s made some mistakes.
But ultimately, she realizes that she has to take responsibility for her own actions.
“You know at first it was hard because I didn’t want to accept it because I was still in the mind frame that I was following orders and it was my duty, which it was, but it was like I was making excuses, or trying to,” she said.
“But now like five or six years later it’s like, you know what, yeah we were following orders, yeah we were doing our duty, but you know what that’s not an excuse that I’m going to use.”
By working on a book, she says she’s not trying to make excuses, but only to show the scenes behind the pictures.
“I’m just trying to paint the picture behind that one moment in time those pictures were taken,” she said. “You know the frame of mind, things that were going on behind the scenes just on my behalf at least.”
England knows those brief moments in time at Abu Ghraib will follow her for the rest of her life. After all, they’re a part of history now.
And she’s struggling to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She feels mistreated by the Army, but she says she misses it every day.
“People ask me why and it’s like you know, the first reason that I joined up is that I’m a patriot and I want to serve my country,” she said. “The second reason was to get money for college. You know, I can’t even describe the feeling of being able to say yeah I joined up, I went through basic training, boot camp, I made it. I can proudly say that I’m wearing this uniform cause I earned it.
“And you know, I can’t wear the uniform anymore. People look at me so different like they’re so ashamed of me because of what I’ve made the military out to be in the eyes of the world. I don’t even know. Yeah, I miss it.”
Were it not for Abu Graib, England says she would probably be on her fifth tour of duty right now.