Sipping on a longneck Miller Genuine Draft, Jen's brown eyes glaze over as she stares out the window of an Uptown bar, blocks away from the Veterans for Peace Building where she just finished volunteering.
Jen, who does not want her last name used for fear of legal action, is nervously contemplating the day a few years back when, as a guard for a U.S. enemy prisoner of war camp in Iraq, she purposely poisoned two detainees.
"It didn't truly dawn on me until pretty recently that those guys probably died and it's my fault," says Jen, who moved to St. Paul from Racine, Wisconsin, in January.
The small, 125-pound brunette says she broke open the flameless heater from her Army Meals Ready to Eat packet and spliced its magnesium, iron, and salt-based contents into a cigarette, offering the toxic treat to the unwitting prisoners.
"I didn't feel bad at the time because they weren't humans," she says. "To me they were animals. That's how the military works, that's how the military trains people to get stuff done. They desensitize human emotions."
As she patrolled some of the war's first captives at Camp Bucca, a U.S. military holding facility in southern Iraq near the port of Umm Qasr, Jen found herself staring at the men trapped in the barbed-wire makeshift penitentiary and conceiving of ways to hurt them.
She had watched them jack off in front of her, spit at her, and throw human feces and scorpions in her face; they told her they were going to kill her family. (Army Reserve Sergeant Tom Dati, who served with Jen in Iraq and confirms many of the details of her account, said her story is no surprise. Female guards had it the worst, he said. The prisoners were so disrespectful to women. "We tried to keep them as far away from prisoners as possible, but we were often short-handed and didn't have a choice.")
At the age of 19, Jen had no experience managing prison populations, and the military training she received before her six-month deployment didn't prove adequate. In the drills, prisoners complied with requests. But in Iraq, both soldiers and prisoners were doing everything they could to disparage each other.
"I was ready to take all of them out," she says of the prisoners. "I started to go crazy, I know I did...but, there was one guy in my unit talking to baseball cards and another hearing voices, so I guess that's how it was.... Maybe it was the sun, but the prison was making us go crazy."
Finally the day came when Jen saw her opportunity for revenge. A prisoner who often smiled menacingly at her while masturbating had gotten in a fight with another inmate and was restrained. His hands bound, he lay on his stomach in the sand underneath the hot desert sun. Jen begged her superior to let her push his face in the ground, wiping her female feet on him, a huge insult in his culture.
"It was kept under wraps, but they let me do it," she says softly. "I kicked sand in his face, too, and it felt good."
Then there was the time when the prison brass turned the other way after one prisoner bragged of raping Jessica Lynch. Three men from Jen's unit tied his hands, dragged him off, and beat him until he could hardly stand, she remembers.
"It was pretty bad," Jen says. "He was still walking, but barely.... Our superiors knew what was going on and they just didn't care.... At the time, I didn't care either, I was glad they did that."
It wasn't until Red Cross inspectors came that the prison leadership put an end to using Conex shipping boxes as a form of solitary confinement for disobedient detainees suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda. They would leave the prisoners in the metal boxes for days, in above 100-degree heat, Jen recounts. "What were we supposed to think? The rules of engagement changed daily."
Today, at age 24, Jen has decided to come forward and speak out in hopes of helping to end what she sees as an unjust war. She's terrified of public speaking, and on this cold Tuesday, her small hands shake as she smokes a Pall Mall cigarette and remembers Iraq. Jen rarely talks about her experience in the war, but says her guilt has led her to action. "It needs to be heard, the things that were happening, the things we were either forced to do, or chose to do, the war crimes, people need to know about this."
Jen is one of nearly 100 veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars that have committed to testify in Washington, D.C., on March 13 to 16 at the first Iraq Veterans Against the War: Winter Soldier Investigation. The event is part of IVAW's national strategy to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten members of the Minnesota IVAW chapter will be among the hundreds of veterans expected to attend the conference.
"We don't want them to be able to write history about these wars without writing this down," says Aaron Hughes, who organized the campaign after seeing the 1972 documentary film Winter Soldier, which depicts veterans testifying about Vietnam. "We want it to be known that soldiers don't agree with it and don't agree with the way this war is being conducted."
Photographs and video taken by members of the military bring credibility to their statements. Planners have also organized a verification team of 12 combat veterans to fact-check testimony before the event, filing Freedom of Information Act requests for military records and talking with battle buddies of those who plan to testify in order to further substantiate the claims.
"It's the soldier that walked the streets in Iraq and Afghanistan, that drove the roads, that collected intelligence information, that went to a detention center at Guantanamo Bay, it's the soldier that has firsthand experience," Hughes says.
Jen joined the Army Reserves at age 17. Two years later, she found herself in Kuwait, anxiously waiting for the American invasion of Iraq. She couldn't wait to go to war; no one in her unit could. They were told they would be making history, that the people of Iraq needed their help.
"I used to believe that I was making a difference and doing something important, that I was doing the right thing to support our country, our government," she says.
Yet months later, Jen and many members of her unit lost their enthusiasm. Iraq's infrastructure had been destroyed and the Iraqis were in desperate need of the kind of assistance she was ill equipped to provide.
"We had no supplies to help these people. If we were going to be liberators, don't you think we would have brought medicine and food and water?" Jen says, her face tense with anger. "We just sort of gave up. We had no idea what the hell we were doing."