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Unveiling the Face of the Prison Scandal

Chuck Graner, accused of leading the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, was a polite boy. Only in adulthood did troubling signs appear.

June 19, 2004|Paul Lieberman and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

UNIONTOWN, Pa. — Chuck Graner flew both Marine Corps and American flags outside his house after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and they were far from the only flags in Uniontown, just an hour from where one of the hijacked planes crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.

Three month later, the Desert Storm vet reenlisted, joining an Army Reserve unit that needed military police. "I just thought it was the right thing to do," he told a neighbor.

Graner was in the middle of rebuilding his front porch when the unit was ordered to active duty on Feb. 24, 2003, a month before the invasion of Iraq. He left his American flag in the front window, like a curtain, and shipped out to the Middle East, where he would make a name for himself -- but not as a small-town hero.

Graner is among the seven U.S. soldiers ordered before courts-martial, accused of humiliating and torturing Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's own former house of torture. Four will face hearings beginning Monday, including Graner and his pregnant girlfriend, Pfc. Lynndie England, who downplayed their actions as "basically us fooling around."

But since the release of photographs and videotapes of what went on along Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib -- showing England with a stack of naked Iraqis, for starters -- the repercussions have been never-ending, including the mass release of prisoners and scrutiny of Bush administration legal memos on what's permissible in wartime interrogations. Over the last two months, the scandal at Abu Ghraib may have eroded America's moral authority not only in Iraq but on other fronts of the war on terror.

While the larger questions are yet to be answered -- how widespread was such abuse? was torture authorized? -- other guards have identified the ringleader on Tier 1A as 35-year-old Charles A. Graner Jr., the thumbs-up Army specialist who appeared to be enjoying himself while battering one detainee with his fist and posing with others shown naked, bloodied or dead.

One commentator noted Graner's "evil leer." Another saw him as one of the "monstrous American creeps." A third derided the Abu Ghraib guards as "recycled hillbillies," as if such roots might explain why they ran amok inside the prison in Iraq.

But Chuck Graner began his life in suburbia, in a two-story brick home with yellow siding, on a hilltop south of Pittsburgh. He was a kid with promise before he became the man the world saw, the tattooed former prison guard who had pleaded guilty to harassing his ex-wife. He was also a veteran who had kept his cool guarding Iraqi prisoners in the Persian Gulf War -- before he became a defiant man who was hard to figure, one who would display Bible verses outside his home, but pick passages from an angry prophet.

That's not the Chuck Graner they recall in the borough of Whitehall, a quiet community of 15,000 residents that reported only four robberies one recent year. He was the son of an airline mechanic, but mixed daily with the children of doctors and lawyers. Friends assumed that a white-collar life would be the destiny also of the boy who drew little attention to himself in St. Gabriel's elementary school or in Little League, where he was the catcher, the kid behind the mask.

By Pony League age -- 14 or 15 -- he played on the team coached by attorney Ed Lawrence, who recalls him as a polite boy who could be competitive without getting hot under the collar. "I never had any problems with Chuck," Lawrence sums it up.

It may seem odd that a youth coach would remember an average player after two decades, but there's a reason: Lawrence's daughter Lisa, "an egghead kind of kid," in her father's words.

The teenagers hit it off and became a "class couple" at Baldwin High. The 1986 yearbook shows them side by side in the science club, and not merely on the student council, but also on its executive board -- Chuck wearing a tie in that photo. All that was partly Lisa's doing, her family says -- she sort of "pushed him into that" -- but he did not seem out of place among the achievers.

"He wasn't a dummy. He was in the top 20-25%," said Patrick Sentner, who was vice president of the student council.

Graner entertained classmates by imitating David Letterman, and showed physical guts by wrestling and pole-vaulting -- though a teammate jokes that they were "picnic pole-vaulters" because they'd practice a little, then "watch the women run around the track."

"He was just an all-around good kid," said veteran school board member Jane W. Hunnewell.

Lisa's dad wondered about the ambitions of the mechanic's son squiring his daughter, but it wasn't like Chuck was "hanging out at some shopping center smoking cigarettes." Besides, Lisa was heading off to college -- on an academic scholarship at the University of Virginia -- and distance has a way of taking care of first loves.

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