September 15th, 2010

Empathy, integrity, torture led to Army suicide

Alyssa Peterson

Sept. 15, 2010 marks the 7th anniversary of Alyssa Peterson’s death in Iraq.

Alyssa Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff Arizona native served in a military intelligence unit of the 101st Airborne in Iraq in 2003. She formally and loudly objected to techniques used against prisoners (which we have all since learned were torture). She was trained in Arabic and interrogation techniques.  She was a Mormon who, prior to deployment, reportedly was questioning her faith. Her family and fellow trainees remembered her as extremely empathetic and kind.

Alyssa was assigned to “the cage.” After only two days, she refused to participate further. The military command reprimanded her for her “empathy” toward Iraqi prisoners. She was re-assigned to different duties and sent to suicide prevention training. An Army sergeant interrogator, Kayla Williams, knew about Alyssa’s internal struggle with the conflict over her personal feelings and professional duties. On Sept. 15, 2003 she killed herself with her service rifle. She left a suicide note referring to the irony that suicide training had taught her how to kill herself. A notebook was found near her body but was blacked out by the Army.

The Army’s official cause of death, which is all that the family knew at first, was death from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”

The suicide and Army investigation report was uncovered by tenacious KNAU public radio reporter Kevin Elston. [Read the transcript of Elston’s 2005 radio report. Listen to his Nov 2006 interview on Democracy Now.]

The Alyssa Peterson case is an extreme example of how one person chose integrity over doing whatever her employer commanded her to do. The case comes with all the complications that accompany suicide stories. However, here was one gentle soul who refused to torture other human beings.

If more refused, people like Alyssa might not have to see suicide as the only way to resolve a personal integrity conflict.

Finally, her sacrifice should serve as warning that witnessing torture demeans witnesses, too. When torture is the norm, we’ve all lost our humanity and the right to claim moral self-righteousness.

This report is an abbreviated summary of a 2-part series by Greg Mitchell for the Nation “The soldier who chose suicide after she refused to go along with torture.”


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2010 at 10:52 am and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Fairness & Social Justice Denied. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Kachina says:

    Empathy and integrity cause tremendous suffering in workplaces where a culture of bullying prevails. I have occasionally briefly wished I were a stupid person, who could not see the facts of the situation I found myself in. I advocated for change, and it cost me my career. Others ask for help (either directly, as in this case, or indirectly by hinting at the “solution”…suicide), and when it doesn’t materialize we have tragic outcomes.
    Part of the problem is that we are not doing a good job of identifying what the problem is. If the problem is misidentified, the response will be ineffective. Alyssa Peterson identified the problem clearly, but was misidentified as being a problem rather than having a problem. (How often does that happen to targets of bullying!) In my experience as a mental health clinician responding to crises, suicidal thoughts were often the presenting “problem”, when to the client the suicidal thoughts were viewed as a “solution”. Capable people would find out what the underlying problem was.

    Social determinants of health are much better predictors of health outcomes than individual risk factors. That’s why I believe we need to be renegotiating the social contracts that bind us if we are sincere about improving the health of our nations.

    I cannot help wondering how different things could have been if we valued empathy, integrity, and courage to speak out against injustice as highly as we value conformity, deference to authority and power, and indifference to the suffering of people defined as “other”. One day we will recognize that there is no “them, there’s only us out here, and to devalue one among us diminishes us all.

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