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Did she commit sucide or was she murdered by the U.S. Military?

by Kevin Elston Monday, Nov. 06, 2006 at 5:44 PM

Soldier opposed interrogations - Ariz. specialist killed herself in Iraq weeks after objection

FLAGSTAFF - A Flagstaff soldier who in 2003 became the third woman to die in Iraq killed herself two weeks after objecting to the interrogation techniques being used on Iraqi prisoners, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Spc. Alyssa Peterson, 27, an Arabic-speaking interrogator who trained at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, was assigned to a unit at Tal Afar Air Base in northwestern Iraq. According to a criminal investigation report recently released by the military under the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson had been in Iraq for two weeks and participated in two interrogations in late August 2003.

She objected to interrogation techniques after the first session, the documents show, and after the second session she told her supervisor that she "could not carry out" the interrogation methods that were being used and asked to be reassigned.

Her objections came seven months before the prisoner abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib prison in central Iraq became public.

The investigative report states that a sergeant and team leader both "detailed the aversion she had towards applying the interrogation methods to detainees."

Peterson's first sergeant, identified as James D. Hamilton, told investigators, "It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them," the report states.

Army representatives declined to comment on Peterson's death or describe the interrogation techniques she objected to. Valerie Florez, Freedom of Information and Privacy Act officer at Fort Campbell, Ky., said all records of those techniques have been destroyed.

She attended a routine suicide-prevention training Aug. 29 and shortly afterward was reassigned to a base gate where she was directed to monitor Iraqi guards for duplicitous behavior. She also used her language skills to interpret for Iraqi civilians in liaison work.

However, her fellow soldiers reported that she kept to herself and did not make attempts to integrate herself into her team environment.

She avoided eating with her interrogation team and spent time reading at her desk when she did not have other assignments. No one in the unit reported signs of impending suicide.

On the evening of Sept. 15, 2003, she got off work at about 9 p.m. and was not seen again that night.

According to the documents, the company executive officer heard two gunshots at about 9:30 p.m. but did not investigate.

At 9 the next morning, an aircraft passing over the nearby landing zone reported seeing Peterson's body in a grassy field next to her service rifle.

Documents disclosed that she had two gunshot wounds - her weapon apparently had been set on burst - beneath her chin.

Although the criminal investigations report concluded Peterson killed herself with her M-4 service rifle, the autopsy report has not been released. The military investigation offers no explanation of why Peterson would commit suicide.

Family members did not want to comment. A family spokesman, who asked not to be named, said family members did not want to know the details of her death.

In an interview a year after her death, Peterson's family told The Arizona Republic how their daughter was born in a leap year, on Feb. 29, 1976, in Greeley, Colo.

Because her "real" birthday came only every four years, her father would threaten to wake her up at midnight between Feb. 28 and March 1 to celebrate. But he never did.

In elementary school, she played the clarinet, was a standout soccer player and excelled in academics.

Her family moved to Flagstaff when Peterson was in fifth grade. She quickly joined soccer and ran cross country in junior high. In high school, she was a peer counselor.

She worked at McDonald's, saved her money and went to Northern Arizona University on a full academic scholarship, eventually graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

At 21, she served a mission in the Netherlands for the Mormon Church.

When she was told where she would be going, she bought books and tapes to learn Dutch and showed a remarkable aptitude for foreign languages that would serve her later in the military.

While in school, Peterson also attended classes at the Flagstaff Institute of Religion for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

David C. Jay, director of the institute, remembered her as very unassuming.

"She was reserved to the point of being what some people would perceive as shy," Jay said in 2004. "But she was such a wonderfully gifted young lady.

"Initially you would never have suspected that here this little girl would go off and learn to speak these difficult languages in parts of the world we know so little about," Jay said.

Peterson enlisted in the Army in July 2001, telling her parents afterward, "It's already done."

"We were resigned to it," her mother said in the 2004 interview. "We feel strongly that evil exists. That you cannot escape from it, but have to stand up to it."

Peterson got the best score on a language skills test that the local recruiter had ever seen, and she was chosen for military intelligence training at Fort Huachuca after basic training in Fort Sill, Okla.

After Fort Huachuca, she was sent to the Presidio of Monterey in California for a 15-month course in Arabic so she could help with interrogations and translation.

In August 2003, she shipped out to Iraq with the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division.

Her parents did not know she was in Iraq at the time of her death, thinking she was still stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.

After she died, her company commander called her family and said she had been a great asset to the unit. He said she was well-liked and had never been happier than when she was talking with the local residents, helping to make their lives happier.

He said she exemplified compassionate service.

Her death has been difficult for the Petersons, who went to Phoenix to meet their daughter's coffin.

"When the door of the cargo hangar opened, and that casket was there with a flag on it ... that was hard," her mother said.

Alyssa Peterson was buried with full military honors in Citizens Cemetery in Flagstaff.

Kevin Elston is a reporter for National Public Radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, which originally aired this report.

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