Michael Amon

A Small Town Soldier On Trial

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

May 15, 2004 — p. A16, Washington Post
Spec. Jeremy Sivits of Hyndman, Pa., Is About to Face Court-Martial in Abuse Scandal
By Michael Amon and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers

HYNDMAN, Pa. — In the early mornings before school, Jeremy Sivits ran through the streets of this hillside hamlet wearing his backpack to strengthen his shoulders for wrestling season. In the evenings, when the sun would set over the Appalachian Mountains and draw residents out to their front porches, he would nod hello and smile.

He had “sir, ma’am” manners and mediocre grades. He was a typical kid of limited means and modest goals who joined the Army eager to serve, as his father had in Vietnam, said friends and acquaintances. But after more than a year in Iraq, Sivits was getting homesick — so much so that he was considering quitting the Army when he got home, he wrote his friends. He wanted to be back with his new wife and maybe coach his high school’s baseball team.

Instead, the 24-year-old specialist of the Cresaptown, Md.-based 372nd Military Police Company is still in Iraq, where he is about to become the first soldier from his unit to stand trial in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse case. His court-martial, scheduled for Wednesday, is to take place in the Baghdad Convention Center so authorities can accommodate a media crush that will make the bashful auto mechanic nicknamed “Puggs” the latest public face of the scandal.

Sivits emerged as a central character this week when two sworn statements he gave to investigators became public. Sivits detailed how members of his unit beat and embarrassed detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. In the statements, given in January, he describes how his fellow soldiers laughed as they piled naked detainees on top of one another and forced them to masturbate, while admitting that he took pictures of some of the abuse and did not report the mistreatment.

“I was laughing at some of the stuff they had them do,” he said of the way the guards treated the detainees. “I was disgusted at some of the stuff as well. As I think about it now, I do not think any of it was funny.”

At another point he added: “I should have said something.”

The accusations he levels in the statements have been dismissed as self-serving and spurious by some of the lawyers representing the other six soldiers who have been charged in the case. Sivits has offered to plead guilty and could testify against the others in exchange for a lighter sentence, they said.

Until now, it has been some of the other members of his unit whose images have been synonymous with the abuse at Abu Ghraib. In the famous photographs there is Pfc. Lynndie R. England holding a naked man by a leash, and Spec. Sabrina D. Harman standing over a pile of naked detainees. One of the soldiers in another photo of naked detainees is Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., Graner’s attorney told the Wall Street Journal.

Lawyers representing some of the soldiers facing charges have taken their defense to newspapers and prime-time television. The family of Staff Sgt. Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick II has even set up a Web site to bolster the campaign.

Sivits’s family, by contrast, has bunkered down in its frame house with peeling paint, a shaky screen door and a slouching shed in the yard across from train tracks. Besides granting a few interviews in the days after the abuse scandal became public, Sivits’s relatives have shunned the media. They parked a 30-foot-long tractor-trailer on the curb in the front of the house, shielding their home from photographers’ zoom lenses.

Daniel Sivits, Jeremy Sivits’s father, who friends said is retired and lives on a modest pension, said late last month that the family could not afford to hire a civilian lawyer. On Thursday, Daniel Sivits again declined to comment, but said the family has been left in the dark about the case. “You all in the media know more about this than we do,” he said.

Jeremy Sivits was no older than 5 when his family moved to Hyndman, friends said. By then, the trains had already begun bypassing Hyndman as a business stop, and the railroad jobs that once drove the local economy had vanished. But trains still clank through the town, making the silverware at Junee’s diner on Center Street clatter and sending ripples through coffee cups.

“We’re mostly a bedroom community now,” Hyndman Mayor Del Biller said.

The downtown is one block and has a two-pump gas station, one bank, one used-car dealership and a traffic light that blinks red. It’s a dry town: Liquor sales are illegal.

Freda Sivits, Jeremy Sivits’s mother, works on the outskirts of town at the Dollar General store, where cashiers delight in the gossip that entertains many of Hyndman’s 1,500 residents.

Aside from the swimming hole near Gooseberry Park or the mall in Cumberland, Md., 15 miles to the south, there is little to keep the high school kids in Hyndman entertained.

“There’s not much to do out here in the hills,” said Jim Williams, 25, a lifelong resident who made Jeremy Sivits godfather to his 8-year-old daughter.

The focal point of the town is Hyndman Senior High School, which at about 200 students isn’t big enough to field a football team. So soccer and baseball are the big sports. Jeremy Sivits played both and wrestled, too.

“He was a little bit on the backwards side,” Biller said. “A shy, typical boy.”

The mayor and others here could not believe that the person who as a teenager carried a flag in the annual Memorial Day parade would be involved in such abuse. On the contrary, his shy stoicism engendered trust, they said. His high school soccer coach remembered that a friend came to Sivits crying after a dispute with her boyfriend, and Sivits consoled her and talked to the boyfriend as well.

Sivits faces a special court-martial, similar to a misdemeanor trial. The maximum jail time he would serve is one year. Others in the unit face general courts-martial with the potential for more severe penalties. By the account he gave investigators, Sivits had little to do with the abuse aside from taking pictures and allowing it to happen without reporting it.

It was Graner, he said, who “punched [a] detainee with a closed fist so hard in the temple that it knocked the detainee unconscious.”

It was Frederick, Sivits said, who punched another detainee “for no reason.” And it was Sgt. Javal S. Davis, he said, who “lunged in the air” and landed on a pile of captives, and also stomped on their fingers or toes. Davis told ABC’s “Good Morning America” yesterday that “no one was injured from what I did.” Frederick’s relatives and an attorney for Graner have also denied they did anything illegal.

Sivits said he was told by Graner not to say anything about the abuse. He also didn’t want to upset anyone. “I try to be friends with everyone,” he told investigators.

When he shipped off to Iraq last year, friends and family said, he was ready for war and the hardships that came with it. He had joined the service eagerly, and even wore his dress uniform when he took a date to her high school prom. Lots of kids from Hyndman, where jobs can be hard to come by, join the service, Biller, the mayor, said. And so when Sivits, whose father fought in Vietnam and whose uncle died in that war, enlisted, no one was surprised.

“He wanted to be like us,” Daniel Sivits said late last month. “And look what it got him.”

While in Iraq, Jeremy Sivits asked for news from friends but said little in his e-mails about the war. “He wanted to come home. That was the main thing,” Williams said.

Williams’s wife, Lisa, said: “If he talked about Iraq, it was only to say: ‘You can’t imagine what it’s like here. It’s a totally different world.’ ”

Then they received a cryptic e-mail, and they knew something was wrong. “He said: ‘Some things are going on here.’ But he wouldn’t go into details,” Lisa Williams said.

The e-mail came in January, three months before the photos became public, and Jeremy Sivits was keeping his secret.

Davenport reported from Washington. Researcher Bobbye Pratt in Washington contributed to this report.

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