Wednesday, April 6, 2011

That Girl from Abu Ghraib

If I say to you, "You know! That girl from Abu Ghraib," would you see her face in your mind's eye?

Maybe you'd picture the sullen official Army photo, lifeless eyes, thin lips, full cheeks. Serious. Chilling.

Maybe you'd envision that horrific shot of a naked man curled up in a fetal position, his neck collared, his head turned away from the young woman holding a leash to which he is tethered.

Or, maybe you'd see in your mind's eye the photograph of a pyramid of stripped men, a girl standing behind them, giving a thumbs up to the camera with one arm, the other draped around another smiling prison guard.

But when someone says to me, "That girl from Abu Ghraib," I see the woman I ran into at the Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in spring twilight of 2004.

She was pregnant.

When I was a military spouse at Fort Bragg, I used to joke that Womack was my second home. That's because I was there all of the time. I had a pretty bad pregnancy that required physician visits every one to two weeks. And for at least a year after Neil was born, I had to keep up with regular checkups for different reasons. During one of these visits, I'd been at the hospital for three hours for lab work and other tests. I had one more stop to make before I could go home -- my primary physician on the first floor.

It was 6 p.m.

The hospital was devoid of activity by now, as most people had completed their health visits. Those of us who were left were either inbound patients or people like me -- the problem cases requiring more attention.

I was sitting in an empty waiting room when she walked in. I was flipping through a magazine I'd brought along and instinctively looked up when I heard the door push open. The soldier was wearing a maternity uniform, and I just saw her back as she checked in at the counter. An older woman with her, obviously her mother, sat down opposite to me. We made eye contact and exchanged brief acknowledgement smiles.

Then the soldier turned to sit down, and I was immediately transfixed with recognition.

She didn't make eye contact. She sat down next to her mother, who whispered something, and then they both continued their conversation in hushed tones.

Have you ever thought to yourself, "What would I do if I ever met someone like Hitler on the street?" I think about things like that at times. I always thought I'd walk up to a person like that and give them a tongue lashing, then strike them as hard as I could. And yes, in my mind's eye, at the time I compared that young woman to the likes of Hitler or to his Nazi concentration camp guards.

But as I sat there, actually in that situation I'd imagined with history's criminals, I was amazed at the wash of emotions.

I felt sick.

I felt angry.

I felt afraid.

I felt revulsion.

I felt anxiety.

I felt condemnation.

Then I felt other things.

I felt pity.

I felt sadness.

I felt concern.

And, most surprisingly, I felt love.

No, I didn't feel love as you'd imagine, but a sense of God's love, tapping me on the shoulder with gentle persistence.

"I died for her, too, you know," I heard Him say to my heart. "I died for her, too."

The inward struggle to say something to her -- to tell her how her actions had shamed those of American patriots and our country -- to instruct her on human rights -- to be her moral superior -- was overwhelming.

And at the same time, I yearned to walk across the waiting room to her, sit next to her, introduce myself and ask her if I could pray with her.

I'd like to tell you that I did the latter.

But in the end ... the door to the examination rooms opened, and a nurse called my name.

The moment had passed. I walked through to see my doctor, and Spc. Lynndie England passed out of my life in that eye flick, without even a word or a smile between us.

I often think back to those few seconds, which felt like a lifetime. What was the proper response?

I can tell you what it would not have been -- it would not have involved my dream to slap her silly. But I also wonder, what would she have said or done if I'd told her I'd pray for her or that God loved her? Would she have listened? Would she have been appreciative or accepting of my words? Or would I have aggravated and come off as the Saturday Night Live Church Lady?

I took something out of that encounter, though, something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Jesus died for her, too.

He loves her, too.

And because we're all sinners, none of us have the right to condemn another person. We're all culpable for our own sins, public and hidden.

If I had to do it over again, I would have offered Lynndie my hand. She was obviously there for an appointment when no one else would be in the hospital. She was a pariah. And it looked to me that the only person who was her friend ... was her mother.

Who needs God's love more than someone like that?

So next time you give thought to the atrocities of the war, your political enemies, your nemesis at the office or your family member who drives you to drink ... remember Lynndie England.

She -- and they -- have God's grace if they want to ask for it.

And you do as well.


  1. Well said. I suspect each of us can identify moments when we recognized another's pain and failed to reach out. Goes with the territory of being imperfect. If she hasn't already, let's hope Ms. England reads your words someday and understands someone cares.

  2. Thank you, Bonneville -- I do believe that God is a God of mercy. We are all culpable in His eyes, but we are also equally loved. As He gives grace to all, it's important for me (at least) to remember that one person's sins have nothing to do with me. But their understanding of God's grace has everything to do with me. I do hope that Ms. England has found peace, forgiveness and relationship with God. And if not, that she will someday. Thanks again for your comment.