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W.Va. reservist caught up in a storm of controversy

Sun Staff

FORT ASHBY, W.Va. - Lynndie England loved a good storm.

Growing up in West Virginia, in a quiet crossroads of a town called Fort Ashby, she would seek them out. During tornado warnings, her mother recalls, she would have to drag her daughter back inside the house. Meteorology, her former teachers say, was the career she wanted to pursue - specifically, as a storm chaser.

Now, the storm has found England. The 21-year-old Army reservist is perhaps the most visible character in the controversy over the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison: the thumbs-up, pixieish, T-shirted soldier, smiling, pointing and posing for the camera with naked and humiliated Iraqi inmates.

Terrie England, still waiting yesterday to hear whether her daughter was going to be charged criminally, has seen the photographs more times than she can stand. "It's all over the news, but we're not hearing anything new. They just keep showing the pictures," she said. "How many times do I have to see those pictures?"

Sitting in their living room, Lynndie England's parents say they are convinced she was not involved in any interrogations, that she was not part of any abuse and that she is not getting a fair shake from the military she loved.

Since January, they say, she has been asking for legal representation and gotten none. For the past month, she has been restricted to the Army base at Fort Bragg, N.C., awaiting word on what repercussions she faces for, in their view, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being photographed there.

They have not seen her since just before Christmas, when she was home on two weeks' leave. Sick, tired, coughing and about 25 pounds lighter than when she left, she spent most of the time sleeping, they say.

An independent sort known to speak her mind, Lynndie England joined the Reserves while she was a junior at Frankfort High School in Ridgely, W.Va. She was known for doing her work, causing no trouble, and for wearing combat boots and camouflage fatigues to school. After her junior year, while most students were on vacation or at summer jobs, she went to basic training.

She was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., for additional training after graduation and then came back home, working nights at a chicken-processing plant until, as a member of the Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company, she was called to duty.

Her best friend, Destiny Goin, said they sat and cried for two hours before she left for Iraq.

She stayed in touch regularly - with her parents, younger brother and her married sister, with Goin and with an ailing great-aunt in eastern Kentucky. She would send photos - Lynndie on a Humvee, Lynndie on a camel, Lynndie with a stray cat she befriended in Iraq - and she would call when she could.

Back home, members of her unit - sent to help provide security at a prison infamous under Saddam Hussein for its brutality - were becoming hometown heroes. Their pictures were posted on walls of honor at the courthouse in Keyser and the Wal-Mart in LaVale.

But in January, the phone call from Baghdad came: "I just want you to know that there might be some trouble," Terrie England recalled her daughter saying.

Like the thunderstorms Lynndie England used to watch from mountaintops, the extent of the trouble took some time - months, in fact - to gather and grow before the downpour came, with reports on 60 Minutes II and in The New Yorker about abuses at the prison.

The way the Englands see it, what is happening to their daughter is like what happened with Pfc. Jessica Lynch - only in reverse. Both were from economically stagnant small towns in West Virginia. Both joined the service soon after high school, hoping to better their opportunities and see the world. Both found themselves - Lynch with a maintenance division, England as an administrative worker - in situations that went far beyond their prescribed job duties.

And, just as government and news media accounts of Lynch's capture and rescue portrayed her as more of a hero than the actual circumstances merited, the portrayal of their daughter is painting her as more of a villain than they say the facts, once known, may merit.

"Just like what happened with that Lynch girl, this is getting blown out of proportion," said Lynndie's father, Kenneth England, "but in a negative rather than a positive way."

'I just can't believe this'

Lynndie England saw joining the Reserves as a way to see the world beyond Fort Ashby, and a chance to further her education.

"She loves tornadoes," her father said. "She wanted to get enough money to go to college and be a meteorologist."

"Twister was her favorite movie," said her sister, Jessica Klinestiver.

Lynndie England was born in Ashland, Ky., and moved to Fort Ashby when she was 2. As a child, she liked to play softball, ride bikes and go swimming in Patterson Creek. She was hooked on The X-Files.

She would go along on family hunting trips, and while she shot turkey and squirrels, she declined to shoot deer.

In Frankfort High, she was a member of the Future Farmers of America. "She was very nice. I never had any problems with her in class. She wasn't overly studious, but she did her work," said teacher Sandi Bradley.

After graduating in 2001, she worked at the local IGA grocery store as a cashier and married a co-worker. According to her mother, they were together less than a year. "Her husband couldn't adjust to her military life," she said.

Shortly after the public release of the photos from Abu Ghraib, Terrie England was on the telephone with her daughter while watching television.

"You're on every channel," she says she told her daughter. "There you are, and there's a naked Iraqi, and there's you with your thumb up."

Her daughter responded: "I just can't believe this."

As Lynndie England has explained it to her parents, she was assigned to process prisoners - fingerprinting them and conducting iris scans, they say - but would regularly go visit her fellow reservists working on the other side of the prison.

"She shouldn't have been processing prisoners in the first place," her father says. "She was trained as an administrator - a paper pusher. At night, she would walk across the prison yard to go over and see her buddies. They were the ones doing the interrogations," he said.

Her mother added: "They were told that you need to do what you gotta do to get info out of these people. Whether it was the CIA or MI [military intelligence] or any of those other initials she threw at me, I don't know. But they're not going to be the ones to take the fall."

'Proud of my daughter'

Lynndie England was intent on leaving Fort Ashby, unlike her sister. "She wanted to see the world. She wanted to do stuff. I was the one who wanted to stay around home and family," said Klinestiver, who lives with her husband and baby next door to their parents.

The family acknowledged in an interview that Lynndie England has a romantic relationship with Charles Graner, a fellow member of the Reserve unit, but they declined to comment on reports that she is pregnant.

Military officials confirmed yesterday that England is pregnant, but they released no information on whether, or when, England might be charged in the abuse of the detainees.

Her family continues to await news of the next development. They say they have received only messages of support from their friends, although they are aware of "hateful" comments on the Internet about their daughter and others suspected of abusing Iraqi detainees.

"I know some people are saying they should be turned over to the Iraqis - that we should let the Iraqis deal with them - but everyone we know is being supportive because they know Lynndie, and this is not Lynndie that they are showing," Terrie England said.

"Some people may think that I'm ashamed of her," she said. "I'm not ashamed of her. I'm proud of my daughter."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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