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House of horrors

Former soldier revisits Abu Ghraib disgrace

From Ed Lavandera

Cruz: "I partook with fellow soldiers in the abuse of detainees and didn't show the moral courage or the ability to stand up and stop anything."


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Abu Ghraib
Crime, Law and Justice

(CNN) -- With absolute concentration, Armin Cruz kicks, jumps and jabs at a martial arts gym in Plano, Texas, one of the few places he says he's able to escape the prisoner abuse scandal that followed him home from Iraq.

"These people know who I am. And they know what I went through for the most part," the former U.S. Army specialist says of the facility he's trained at since he was 11. "And there's no judging. They know deep down, I'm a pretty decent person."

He continues to be haunted by a moment captured in a photograph from an incident that, he says, lasted less than 30 minutes.

Late on October 25, 2003, Cruz came upon guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad -- a detention center formerly under Saddam Hussein's control being run by coalition forces -- punishing three Iraqi inmates for allegedly raping a 15-year-old boy.

Cruz says anger took over when he walked into the room. He and other troops ordered the inmates to strip naked, then handcuffed them and forced them to crawl on the floor.

"We had no idea what to do. And there was clearly no guidelines on what to do," he says.

"[We] felt that these personnel should be punished for raping another person. And we took it a few steps too far, way too far."

Mental strain, physical abuse

A month before that night, a mortar shell exploded in a tent where Cruz was preparing to hit the streets of Iraq in his role as an intelligence analyst with the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion.

He pulled two men to safety after the blast, and spent an hour trying -- unsuccessfully -- to save his best friend, Sgt. David Travis Friedrich.

Sgt. Frank Krapf was there. He says Cruz changed that night, the psychological toll of months at war finally reaching a breaking point.

"He wasn't his usual talkative and active and jovial, fun-loving self," Krapf explains.

That moment and those emotions came back to him, says Cruz, when he saw the three Iraqi men being punished in Abu Ghraib and joined the fray.

"My mind's eye saw nothing but a bunch of Iraqis who attacked us and tried to kill us," he says. "The rage and the anger took over inside me. And I wanted to get redemption for killing Travis and injuring me."

Months later, a photo -- one of many released over the Internet and through the media depicting prison abuses -- came out showing Cruz standing to the right of a tangle of bodies at Abu Ghraib. He was the first military intelligence operative charged in connection with the scandal.

He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and maltreatment of prisoners. In September 2004, he was sentenced to eight months of confinement, demoted to a private and given a bad conduct discharge.

Sorting out rumor, fact

In Cruz's military court hearing, Spc. Israel Rivera testified that detainees "were put together in a big bundle of bodies, and they were handcuffed together. They were made to look like they were having sex."

Rivera said Cruz and some prison guards used their feet to press down on the buttocks of the men to simulate the appearance they were having homosexual sex.

But Cruz disagrees with this account, calling it one of many rumors spread that were never proved in the court-martial proceedings.

"We were punishing -- wrongfully so, clearly -- but punishing people for raping a boy. Yes, they did get stripped down, and they did get pushed around ... They were told to roll left and roll right," he says. "[But] there was no homosexual acts."

U.S. military prosecutors now say the alleged rape -- the one that prompted authorities to detain the three men in the first place -- might not have happened.

Lumped with other offenders

Cruz earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during his service in Iraq, before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke. But while he received a medal and official citation for the Purple Heart, he only received a copy of his citation for the Bronze Star, because of the court-martial.

"I sweated and bled in [Iraq] to earn it. And I would really love to be able to see it, the real certificate and the medal."

Cruz's lawyer says his client differs from others charged in connection to the Abu Ghraib scandal, such as Pfc. Lynndie England or Pvt. Charles Graner Jr., who have also pleaded guilty and are pictured posing with naked prisoners.

"The level of his involvement was a lot less," says attorney Stephen Karns. "His involvement was for 20 or 30 minutes during the one-hour time period that he was there. He didn't initiate it. It wasn't his idea. He didn't orchestrate it."

Cruz says he finds peace working out in a martial arts gym in his hometown of Plano, Texas.

Cruz reported the incident the next morning to U.S. Military Police, Karns contends, and accepted responsibility from the beginning and pleaded guilty to charges.

Karns adds that Cruz was under mental duress from his friend's death a month before the incident.

"He watched one of his good friends die. I mean, his body was just torn apart. Soon thereafter, he asked for help from the combat stress team and didn't get that help," Karns says.

Blames himself

Today, Cruz is slowly rebuilding his life. His bad conduct discharge ended his military career, but his friends have faith Cruz will erase the psychological scars.

"He's probably punished himself worse than the Army did," says friend Peggy Nolan. "I really do not think that that one small incident should be held against him for the rest of his life. I think that he has suffered enough."

Cruz says he blames himself for what happened and doesn't want anyone to think he's making excuses.

"I partook with fellow soldiers in the abuse of detainees and didn't show the moral courage or the ability to stand up and stop anything."

For now, Cruz continues to kick and punch invisible foes while training daily at the gym, fighting for what he calls mental strength as he remembers his time in Iraq and contemplates an uncertain future. In that respect, he says, he is like any other soldier.

"Everybody who goes to Iraq is going to come back a changed person, regardless of the situation -- [whether they] come out unscathed, come out hurt; went to a court-martial or didn't," he says. "Everyone who goes is going to come back a different person on some level."

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