WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. — The guards at the U.S. detention center at Bagram Air Base didn't know whether Habibullah had anything to do with terrorist attacks on America, but they knew that he was defiant.
On a cold December day in 2002, Spc. Brian Cammack tried to feed the Afghan clergyman in his late 20s a piece of bread by cramming it into his mouth. Habibullah's hands were chained above his head, but he pushed the bread out of his mouth with his tongue and spit at Cammack.
Cammack lost his temper and kneed the chained prisoner in the leg, cursed at him, put a cloth sack back over his head and stormed out of his cell.
Later, when Cammack heard Habibullah "rustling around" in his chains, he thought nothing of it. When he finally went back in to check on the prisoner, Cammack said: "I took the sack off his head and his eyes looked strange."
Soon after, Habibullah died of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot dislodged by the beatings he'd received. He was one of two Afghan detainees known to have died of beatings at Bagram; the other was a man named Dilawar.
Years later, leaning over his dining room table in his Kentucky home on the bend of a narrow country road, Cammack said he knew that it was hard to understand what had happened in 2002 at the main American detention camp in Afghanistan.
There's a lot that the American public doesn't know about Bagram, Cammack said in a soft voice as his wife cooked dinner in the next room.
The Defense Department has said that detainee abuse in places such as Bagram was the work of a handful of wayward soldiers. Even after Habibullah and Dilawar were beaten to death, U.S. military officials continued to say that such violence was isolated.
Cammack and other soldiers say the abuse was the outcome of sending troops, often reservists with no background in detainee operations, to installations where the rules were unclear and they received little support.
"It tore us down mentally really bad," said Cammack, who pleaded guilty to hitting Habibullah and received three months in prison and a bad-conduct discharge. "You had no support whatsoever . . . everybody hit their boiling point."
Cammack was a specialist in the 377th Military Police Company, a reserve unit based in Cincinnati. Many of his buddies were small-town police officers or, like him, blue-collar laborers. He was one of four soldiers from the unit who agreed to interviews with McClatchy.
No one at Bagram, Cammack said, had any idea what he was doing. Senior officers who came through the Bagram Collection Point paid no attention to the privates and sergeants, who, Cammack said, were slowly losing control of themselves in the face of the war in Afghanistan.
Those on indoor guard duty spent their days surrounded by Afghans, Pakistanis and Arabs with beards and foreign faces. To many of the men from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, all the prisoners looked like Osama bin Laden. The more combative detainees spit or screamed in languages that no one but the handful of translators understood.
The soldiers who did guard rotation at the front gate of the air base saw the aftermath of vehicles hitting nearby minefields: men, usually Afghans, and pieces of men carried in bloody heaps in the backs of pickups.
The soldiers who broke down and abused detainees were charged with crimes, but their senior leaders were never held accountable, Cammack said.
Cammack and his fellow military police were trained to subdue detainees by striking them just below the knee, which hit the common peroneal nerve and caused paralyzing pain.
The problem, Cammack said, is that in the absence of supervision, the same detainees were hit, over and over, by every guard shift.
"The first person does two (knee strikes), the next one does two and then after a while, he's unresponsive," as in dead, Cammack said.
James Boland, a sergeant who retired from the 377th, said the common peroneal nerve strike was taught not by official military instructors but by unit members who'd picked it up while serving as police officers back home.
"It was not part of formal military training," said Boland, who received a letter of reprimand for not seeking medical help for Dilawar before he died despite "signs of obvious physical distress."
Dilawar, who was in his mid-30s, died a week after Habibullah from what a military pathologist's report termed "blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease."
As the muscle tissue in his legs was badly damaged, the pathologist said, protein from the muscle was released into the bloodstream, which can cause kidney failure. Dilawar's urine was brown.
It's not clear from court-martial transcripts how many soldiers struck Habibullah and Dilawar. One soldier, former Spc. Willie Brand, told military investigators that he struck Dilawar "somewhere in the area of 37 times."
"These two guys died, but I probably kneed 20 or so (detainees) total and I just can't differentiate between the rest of the (detainees) and the ones who died," Brand testified.
The U.S. military has never produced any evidence showing that either Habibullah, an Islamic mullah, or clergyman, or Dilawar, a taxi driver, had any connection to the Taliban or al Qaida.
Cammack said that every guard he knew at Bagram struck a detainee at some point. Boland said in an interview at his Ohio home that Brand "was no different from anyone else in that unit. . . . Willie Brand was just the one who talked with the investigators. Everybody else was pretty closed-mouth about it."
Boland, who works on construction cranes, and Cammack, who does quality control for a company that makes truck axles, said their unit was deployed to Afghanistan without much training.
They received about three weeks of detainee training at Fort Dix, N.J. using mock jail cells in the basement of a building. "It was a complete joke," Cammack said. The men who were supposed to impersonate uncooperative detainees frequently fell asleep while lying down in the cells, he said.
Asked in a phone interview what training he'd received for handling detainees, Sgt. Darin Broady, a then-specialist who was accused of kicking Habibullah in the chest, said he couldn't remember.
"It's kind of like building a house for the first time," Broady said. "You don't really know what to do."
Like most of the men in the 377th, Broady attended military police school, which lasted about four and a half months.
The charges against Broady, who now works for the police department in Sellersburg, Ind., were later dropped.
In a sworn statement to military investigators, Capt. Christopher Beiring, who commanded the 377th, said that during pre-deployment training at Fort Dix, "They had us notionalize a lot of equipment. That is basically pretending that you have equipment like batons, shields, etc." When the 377th arrived in Afghanistan, he said, it had only a three- or four-day overlap with the unit it was replacing.
Standing on his front porch, surrounded by the foothills and farmland outlying Miamitown, Ohio, a small town where the Dew Drop Inn advertises "lunch and beer," Boland stubbed out a Marlboro cigarette and said he didn't keep in touch with other men from the 377th.
He has a small American flag in his yard embroidered with the words "Enduring Freedom," the name U.S. commanders gave to the war in Afghanistan.
"I think about it all the time, everything that we went through," Boland said. "What happened there was a tragedy."
In a phone conversation, Beiring agreed.
Beiring initially was charged with dereliction of duty and making false statements in connection with the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar, but those charges were later dropped. He was reprimanded, however.
His enlisted men also were charged with crimes, but no one above the company level has been held accountable for what happened at Bagram in December 2002.
"It's unfortunate that some people pay a price and others don't," Beiring said.
His sentiments were spelled out on the U.S. Armed Forces Reserves license plate on the red Ford Taurus parked in his driveway: "BETRYD."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008