Before he was charged with abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II displayed a patriotism that bordered on zealotry.
He took American flags from wherever the 372nd Military Police Company was conducting a mission, inscribed them with his location that day - Al-Hillah, Camp Arifjan - folded them into tidy squares, and mailed them in plastic bags to his wife.
He responded in earnest handwritten letters to the fan mail he got from schoolchildren near his home in the central Virginia countryside.
He once told a fellow guard at the state prison near here that he was so eager to get to Iraq that he would volunteer to go if the Army didn't see fit to mobilize his unit.
"My spirits have been very high," Frederick, 37, wrote in a letter to his mother in July, two months after his arrival in Iraq. "I just go with the flow and look out for No. 1."
But his self-assurance appeared to crack the moment the 372nd took over guard duties at Abu Ghraib in October. He worked a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift seven days a week and slept in a 7-foot-by-9-foot cell that shook during mortar attacks on the prison. In the first two weeks, he wrote in a letter to his parents, the inmates under his supervision swelled from 400 to 800.
Nothing about Abu Ghraib, infamous under Saddam Hussein as a site of torture, rape and murder, resembled the medium-security prison in rural Virginia where Frederick had worked as a guard since 1996.
In a November letter to his father, he grappled with his feelings about the "hands on" techniques the soldiers used to discipline prisoners.
The inmates "told me that is very humiliating," he writes of the practice of placing them on their knees with noses against the wall. "A lot end up crying. Sometimes I feel sorry for them but then I realize that they are the reason I am here and the feeling goes away."
Interviews with Frederick's family, former co-workers and childhood acquaintances, and a review of several dozen letters to his relatives paint a portrait of a small-town man of limited horizons, lost in a chaotic, unfamiliar environment with few rules and little oversight.
Frederick is both the highest-ranking soldier to be charged by the military in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and the reason it has become so public a spectacle. His family's decision to take their son's story to CBS News thrust a military secret onto the international airwaves and has handed the Bush administration one of its biggest public relations problems since the start of the Iraqi conflict.
His working-class family - his father is a retired miner and amateur stock-car racer, his mother a retired secretary - is waging a public campaign to portray their son as a scapegoat of military intelligence officers and civilian contractors who goaded him and his subordinates to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation.
They launched a Web site, www.freechipfrederick.com, Friday.
But all the hoopla belies a sober reality: Frederick faces an almost-certain court-martial and what his attorney has told him may be seven years in prison for his role in the horrific torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.
Frederick commanded a half-dozen reservists and 70 Iraqi guards in a section of Abu Ghraib, where military intelligence officers and civilian contractors interrogated inmates.
Several of the American soldiers under his direct supervision can be seen in photographs grinning and flashing thumbs-up signs beside naked Iraqi prisoners. A recently published photo shows him sitting on a prisoner - he wrote in an e-mail to his family last week that this was a "last resort" to "protect [the prisoner] from injuring himself or others."
Hearing transcripts cited in a New Yorker magazine article describe Frederick striking a prisoner in the ribcage without provocation. Matthew Carl Wisdom, a reservist quoted in the transcripts, said that as Frederick walked away from two naked Iraqis forced to simulate oral sex, Frederick said, "Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds."
Unlike most of the reservists facing charges, he was no youngster. He had been in the Reserves for 20 years.
Several people who knew Frederick in Garrett County in Western Maryland, where he spent the first 29 years of his life, say that he could be aloof and arrogant, quick with put-downs and pranks, and at times deaf to the emotional effects of his words. But the lanky, 6-foot-tall Frederick was always more bark than bite - no one recalls any violent tendencies.
"He'd just joke around," recalled Gary Wildman, who trained with him in a National Guard company before Frederick joined the Reserves. "But it was never to an extreme."
Frederick was a typical high school student, devoting as much time to the basketball and baseball teams and off-road racing as to his studies. His mother cried when he told her he would pass on college and instead enlist - along with nearly a quarter of his senior class - in the military.
He joined the Oakland detachment of the Maryland National Guard's 121st Engineer Company, nicknamed the Hillbilly Warriors for the backcountry towns from which it drew members. He lived with his parents until his late 20s and worked at a nearby Bausch & Lomb plant, grinding lenses for expensive Ray-Ban sunglasses at a job that left his hands red and chafed by day's end.
He took a severance package in the mid-1990s when the company cut costs, but his efforts to launch a career in law-enforcement foundered. He started classes in criminal justice at Allegany College of Maryland but dropped out before getting his associate's degree.
The Virginia State Police rejected his application to be a trooper. (Officials there said they cannot comment on individual applicants but said that just 5 percent to 8 percent get jobs.)
He found just one outlet for his budding interest in law enforcement: the Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown. He left the National Guard in 1995 to join the unit. And even after landing the corrections officer job at Virginia's Buckingham Correctional Center the next year, he stuck with the unit, commuting more than four hours to train.
He met his wife, Martha, who had two daughters from previous relationships, within his first few weeks at Buckingham. She was an instructor there and taught the rookie guards. During a break in class, he won her over with a wisecrack about his talent for giving boots a military shine. She didn't share his love for NASCAR racing, but they often passed time together fishing for bass.
At Virginia prison
His colleagues at Buckingham said he had a reputation as a competent corrections officer and won a promotion. He was reprimanded just once, they said - for leaving his tie at home.
John Bartee, a supervisor at Buckingham, remembered that Frederick pushed himself relentlessly, eager to stay fit enough and train hard enough to reach the next rung in his civilian and military careers. "He had this value of excelling - of being a little above the rest," Bartee said.
The first of his many letters from Iraq, all penned in neat print, are filled with observations about stray camels, the lousy food, baby wipes and the joy he feels when a group of Iraqi children lines up to shake his hand. But by the fall, after his assignment to Abu Ghraib, his tone darkens.
He dwells in his letters home on the horrors of the Hussein-era death chamber and the mass graves. He writes of inmates with chest scars, and missing ears and fingers.
"The inmates are used to physical beatings, torture and executions, so they don't act like the inmates I'm used to dealing with," he wrote in October. "All [the prisoners] are plain scared to death. They think we are going to execute them, like Saddam did. We are not allowed to carry any weapons inside, so we depend on our own hands." He does not offer specifics.
At 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, Capt. Donald J. Reese, the 372nd's commander, knocked on his door. Army investigators were outside. They wanted to talk.
Frederick's family tried to persuade the Army to discharge Frederick and take away his pension, arguing that his actions were the result of orders given by others. Frederick's uncle, Bill Lawson, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said in an interview last week that the family also sent letters for help to 17 members of Congress.
When the Army refused and the members of Congress replied with form letters, Lawson contacted retired Col. David Hackworth, a syndicated columnist, who helped the family get in touch with Mary Mapes, a producer for CBS's 60 Minutes II, which broke the story.
"We gave [the military] the opportunity to have none of this come out," Lawson said. "They could have avoided all of this."
Frederick now awaits a court-martial, date unknown, and is restricted to Camp Victory, in Baghdad. He picks up trash, paints curbs and cuts tree limbs. He has to check in several times a day with a senior officer.
His waiting wife
At a neatly kept double-wide trailer in Buckingham last week, his wife wore a haunted look as she took a break from the parade of reporters and camera crews calling and knocking day and night.
She said that she was the one who encouraged him to keep the now widely publicized journal of his observations about the prison abuses. She said he had raised questions all along about what he says was pressure from military intelligence officers to torment prisoners. She believed that putting those questions in writing, even if it might seem self-serving now, would help his case.
"He's not this rogue person," she said, as if in a trance, "or this monster or this type of person who's gone bad."
Two days later in Garrett County, Frederick's father, Ivan "Red" Frederick, was sitting in his rocking chair when his son phoned from Iraq. Chip Frederick's voice was flat, the conversation strained by awkward silences.
"We get all kinds of sympathy cards - everybody is hoping for the best," his father said, trying to buck him up. "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."
But the response was one of dejection. "I ain't even heard her warm up yet," his son said.
There was nothing more to say, so they said goodbye.