Best Defense

A girl I remember in Iraq

She was a new detainee and couldn’t be more than fifteen years old.


By Tessa Poppe
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

They called me in late one night because she spit on a male guard. I reported to the combat surgical hospital and found her hand cuffed to a hospital bed because they couldn’t stop her from thrashing. She was a new detainee and couldn’t be more than fifteen years old. She glared at me for a while and then went to sleep, tossing and turning despite her injuries. Sometimes she awoke saying “alam, alam,” the Arabic word for pain, over and over again.

Reportedly, she and her sister shot at a convoy from their house. The convoy returned fire, slicing up her arm and leg so severely the doctors eventually used external bone stabilizers to keep the fragments of her shattered limbs together. Her sister was presumed dead.

It was Baghdad, 2008, and this was my war. I worked inside one of the many detainee facilities across the country where the prisoners ranged from former Republican Guard, Baath party leaders, and al Qaeda members, to juvies who dug holes for IEDs. One detainee was Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s former deputy prime minister, and one was “Scuba Steve” — a man who incessantly tried to escape through a porta-john.

After a few days, the girl was not getting better — her leg refused to heal. They needed to amputate. She would go into surgery and wake up without a leg. I watched her face change as the interpreter tried to explain what this meant. But whatever empathy I had, I didn’t want to show it.

After surgery, they gave her a wheelchair and put her in the female detainee compound. I was one of very few female guards, so nearly every day I escorted her to physical therapy where she learned to use a prosthetic leg. I watched the physical therapist encourage her to walk, try harder, get stronger. But the girl hated her leg. Sometimes she got angry and insisted on staying in the chair.

It became a routine, lifting her up out of that wheelchair and helping her with the leg. At some point during these appointments she began to smile at me.

Once in a while I forgot where I was. In the moments I lifted this wounded girl up in my arms, I forgot somewhere close by we were shooting at each other. We were just two young people far from our homes. Sometimes I questioned how she got there in the first place. Maybe she did stand somewhere and hose down a convoy, but maybe she was innocent. She was one tiny speck amidst a dark and confusing labyrinth that was and is the world of wartime detention.

Weeks went by and I needed to escort her back to the clinic. They found her sister. She was also severely wounded. There was a hole in her throat and she could barely speak. When the medic pushed back the curtain and they saw one another for the first time, they began to wail. I’d never heard such a sound before, a deep guttural sorrow, alongside joy that they were alive. They wept loudly, for what seemed like hours until an Army doc came by and insisted they be quiet, an American soldier was recovering from his wounds in a nearby room.

I just stood there, the guard, stoically keeping watch. Inside, I thought about my own sisters.

Months went by and the girl was released to her family. The oldest male took charge of her. She didn’t have a father or brother. I suspected they’d been killed. But she didn’t seem to know her uncle. She looked scared. I heard the doctor say it was all a waste. They would never bring her back to get her leg refitted.

I tried not to think about her. Until I was home and things were quiet and then I thought about her a lot. It’s been nearly ten years and I still wonder about her and her leg. I wonder if she’s walking. I wonder if she’s with her sister. I wonder if she has a home or if it’s been overrun with a worse enemy than either one of us could have imagined.

I hate that I don’t remember her name. I hate that at the time, I tried to feel nothing for her.

In a way I want to thank her. She made me question. Question my humanity, which became less and less apparent the longer I worked in that prison. Question what I thought I knew about war. And question the wars I enlisted to fight and wanted so badly to see won.

Tessa Poppe co-holds the Army chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. She is a program specialist in overseas safety and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Tessa served in the Army National Guard for seven years, deploying to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010 as a military police officer. She holds a Master’s Degree in security studies from Georgetown University where she focused on sub-state conflict and stability operations. The views expressed are her own.

Photo credit: SEAN A. FOLEY/U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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