The Story of Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, two Americans Tortured by the U.S. Army in Iraq
Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel are intimately familiar with Camp Cropper, the U.S. Army prison near Baghdad International Airport. But Vance and Ertel were not soldiers. Nor were they intelligence agents or interrogators or private mercenaries employed at the prison. The two men were, however, guests of the United States Army at Camp Cropper. ‘Guests’ might not be quite the word I’m looking for…
Vance and Ertel had been hired by Shield Group Security, an Iraqi firm chin-deep in some dicey dealings. Vance had evidence the company was illegally selling arms that were making their way into the hands of militant groups and death squads. In 2005 he contacted the F.B.I. and became an informant as the feds built their case against Shield Group.
The company must have known something was amiss, for when Vance returned to Iraq following a vacation his manager seized his company ID that allowed him to travel within Iraq or out of the country. When the tension mounted and became almost unbearable, Vance phoned the American embassy and was told that help was on the way. A military “rescue team” arrived and Vance showed them where they could find a cache of weapons.
After that, Vance and Ertel were whisked away to the embassy where they bedded down for the night. But instead of a restful night’s sleep, the men were rudely awakened to find themselves handcuffed and blindfolded. Next stop: Camp Cropper.
The two Americans found themselves locked up in the same high-security prison that once housed Saddam Hussein. Being a U.S. citizen, Donald Vance– who is also a Navy veteran– wasted no time in demanding an attorney. But things didn’t work that way in Iraq. Shackled and blindfolded, Vance and Ertel were put in wheelchairs and rolled to padded rooms where they were interrogated by a slew of U.S. agencies. When they weren’t being repeatedly grilled by American officials, the two prisoners passed the time in 9’x9’ cells with concrete slabs for beds and bright fluorescent light blazing late into the night. The air conditioner was cranked way up but the two Americans had only their thin prison jumpsuits to protect them from freezing. They were given no blankets or sheets. Sleep was impossible. To make things worse, the prisoners were bombarded with ear-splitting music for up to 20 hours a day. Vance says Nine Inch Nails, AC/DC, Queen, Pantera and others were part of this audial assault that anyone in their right mind would consider torture.
Eventually the two Americans were granted a hearing at which Vance begged the Camp Cropper detention board to search his laptop and cellphone for proof that he was actually working for the F.B.I.. Ertel was distraught. “There’s been a major mix-up,” he pleaded. “Please, I’m out of my mind. I haven’t slept. I’m not eating. I’m terrified.”
A week later, Vance was allowed to phone his fiance in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Camp Cropper detention board decided that Nathan Ertel was innocent of any wrongdoing. But Ertel was not informed of this decision and spent another 18 days behind bars before being released without charge.
As for Vance, even after the F.B.I. confirmed his story and told the Camp Cropper authorities that he was acting in the interest of the U.S. government, he was not released. But finally, after 97 harrowing days in captivity, Donald Vance was freed without charge. He says that upon his release he was asked if he would write or talk about his ordeal or hire a lawyer. “I took it as, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about this place,’ and I kept saying ‘No, sir, I want to go home,’” he told reporters.
Life after Camp Cropper has been difficult for Donald Vance. “It’s really hard, “ he told the New York Times. “I don’t really talk about this stuff with my family. I feel ashamed, depressed, still have nightmares, and I’d even say I suffer some paranoia,” he confessed
Meanwhile, back at Camp Cropper, Bagram Air Base, Guantanamo Bay, Kandahar and at secret C.I.A. prisons around the globe, hundreds– if not thousands– of terrorism suspects, many of them innocent, continued to endure torture at the hands of their American captors.
Today, Vance and Ertel have been granted permission by a federal judge to proceed with a lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the man who authorized some of the torture techniques used against them.
We wish them the best of luck.
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