Jonathan Millantz (left) and then-Lt. Phil Blanchard smile as an Iraqi detainee is forced to hold up a large board. Reveal has blocked the detainee’s eyes in this image to protect his identity. Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Millantz

Former U.S. Army medic Jonathan Millantz shared this photo with me as an attempt to hold U.S. officials accountable. This is the first time it has been shown publicly.

In August 2008, Millantz called and asked me to visit him in his hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He sounded frustrated – agitated, actually. He spent years detailing accounts of prisoner abuse and torture in which he and his fellow Army unit members had been involved. Nearly a dozen fellow soldiers backed up accounts of the unit’s prisoner abuse.

Millantz had reached out to me again after the broadcast of a radio documentary on prisoner abuse I produced with reporter Michael Montgomery. By then, the Abu Ghraib prison photos from Iraq had spurred a military investigation. But Millantz said his photos were different from the Abu Ghraib pictures. He said his photos revealed widespread abuse and graphic torture – committed in the presence of officers. He hoped the force of these photos might finally prompt a response.

Just before I arrived in Greensburg, Millantz’s family stumbled across a stack of his pictures, which shocked them. His family told me later that some showed detainees hanging from the bars of a jail and a soldier menacingly pointing a gun at a prisoner. And these weren’t the only disturbing photos.

His family thought the pictures were just “a horrible reminder of the horrible things (he) went through” and threw them all away. Millantz said he understood and believed his family destroyed those pictures to protect him from revisiting grueling wartime memories. Yet he still was determined to find photos for me to validate his account of what happened.

Together, we spent several hours rummaging through garbage bags in his family garage, trying to find the discarded pictures. We combed through his computer, hoping to locate files he sent to friends. But we weren’t able to salvage anything.

An image obtained by The Associated Press shows Sgt. Michael Smith (left) with his dog, Marco, watching a detainee on an unspecified date in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
An image obtained by The Associated Press shows Sgt. Michael Smith (left) with his dog, Marco, watching a detainee on an unspecified date in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Credit: Associated Press Credit: Associated Press

The following day, we stopped by a house near Greensburg that belonged to Millantz’s friend John Hutton. Hutton had a number of photos and letters that Millantz sent him from Iraq. After the news about Abu Ghraib broke, Millantz asked his friend to keep the photos tucked way. Hutton stored the photos and letters in a locked box and told Millantz he could pick them up whenever he wanted.

When we visited Hutton, he gave Millantz the few remaining photos he had. This photo was one of them.

Photos documenting detainee abuse during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the subject of a decadelong fight by the American Civil Liberties Union to release hundreds, possibly even thousands, of additional photos. This month, the federal judge overseeing the case demanded that the government explain why it hasn’t released the photos.

This photo doesn’t belong to the government’s files; it belonged to Millantz. The public might or might not see the additional photos of detainee abuse and torture. But now Millantz’s photo will be part of the public record. That’s what he wanted.

We’re releasing this photo at a time when the issue of government torture is back in the news. It resurfaced again when the U.S. Senate released its report on the CIA’s secret interrogation and detention program in December. The report vividly detailed the kinds of torture techniques that CIA agents carried out, and were authorized by President George W. Bush’s administration. The report highlighted something else: no one involved in the CIA program has been punished for abusing and torturing detainees.

After repeated requests over several years, Montgomery and I this month got a short response from the Army about the allegations of detainee abuse we’d heard. A media relations spokesman told us that officials could find no reports of any investigation into alleged abuses based on the information we sent. He said that without the names of the detainees or their serial numbers, they couldn’t determine “whether any detainees raised allegations of abuse.”

The photo Millantz gave me shows him (on the left) posing with a lieutenant while a third man is seen grasping a large wooden board. He said the third man is an Iraqi detainee forced to hold up the board. Millantz and the soldier are smiling broadly, while the prisoner’s face shows a pained expression – his white shirt appears to be drenched in sweat. Reveal has blocked the detainee’s eyes in this image to protect his identity, because he is the alleged victim and because his identity could not be confirmed.

Millantz wrote on the back of the photo that the detainee was “holding that board for 45 minutes,” and later told me that the prisoner’s wrist eventually broke from the exertion. Millantz had sent Hutton the photos with a letter, dated Dec. 20, 2003. In that letter, he further described how he and his unit “tortured the shit out of some prisoners.”

Montgomery and I made several attempts in recent weeks to speak with the man identified by several sources as the lieutenant appearing in the photo. The officer, Phil Blanchard, who is now a captain in the U.S. Army National Guard, replied Thursday with this statement:

“Thank you for the note. I appreciate you sending the photo; unfortunately, I have no recollection of it. I also doubt I could help with your story as I had very limited engagement with detainees during my tour in Iraq. I never processed or questioned detainees as that role fell into our S2 (intelligence) shop within the Battalion. My relationship with SPC Millantz was also very limited as he was not a member of my platoon and only assigned to my platoon on a handful of missions where a Company medic was needed.”

It’s clear, though, that the photo has resonated for years with Millantz’s friends and associates. In 2009, I visited Hutton at his house, and he reflected on the images and letters.

“At the time, I’m sure everybody was doing it, and they were having a good time messing around with these prisoners,” he said. “But once he (Millantz) got back and the reality, laying there at night thinking about it, it got to him. I know it got to him. One night, he came over here, he broke down. … Obviously, he was having issues with it.”

I also passed the photo on to Daniel Keller, a friend of Millantz’s who served in the same unit in Iraq. The setting was familiar to Keller: “This was the detainee shed, actually. A lot of them were interrogated right there, in that room, or in the adjacent cells until they got overcrowded.”

Keller said he had similar pictures as well but couldn’t find them.

“I had a picture of a detainee who I made sit on a concrete block for I don’t know how long, on just the edge of his knees, on the edge of a concrete block,” he recalled. “I smacked him around a little bit. I’d say horrible things to him, and he had his eyes covered so he couldn’t see anything … just horrible things were happening to him.”

Like Millantz, Keller pointed to detainee abuse as the main source of his wartime trauma. And he expressed remorse.

An image obtained by The Associated Press shows a detainee with a bag attached to his arm in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
An image obtained by The Associated Press shows a detainee with a bag attached to his arm in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Credit: Associated Press Credit: Associated Press

“There’s a lot of stuff that you’re not supposed to do that you do over there and … of course it raises the morality issues,” said Keller. “A lot of your emotional ramifications come from these feelings of guilt. If I hadn’t actually hurt anybody, I’d be sitting pretty – I’d be happy as could be.”

I also shared Millantz’s photos with another one of his Army buddies, Michael Blake. He recalled how Millantz coyly revealed the photos to him earlier.

“I remember him showing me some of the photos – of him making a prisoner smile while they were hurting him,” Blake said. “I’ve seen the same thing with other soldiers – with the pictures and video that they have. (They) get real quiet, like, ‘Do you want to see it? Do you want to see the pictures? Do you want to see the videos? Do you want to see what went down?’ It’s that little bit of the dirty truth that nobody wants to know. But I know it never left Johnny. It never left his thoughts. It never left his nightmares.”

In Iraq, Millantz’s photos were a kind of war trophy. But he soured on the prisoner abuse and torture and talked about how he tried to stop it.

When he returned home, Millantz was plagued with guilt about the role he played in the war. He was especially frustrated that nothing came of his efforts to halt the abuse. It gnawed at him.

“Jon wanted to speak out against detainee abuse. He had been involved in enough (detainee abuse) where I’m confident to say it had wrecked a significant portion of his life,” Keller said. “(That) explains why after he came back he went on such a large personal crusade against it.”

Millantz joined the antiwar movement for a time. Then he sought me out in 2006 and began to tell me his story. I suspect he didn’t tell me about his pictures at first because he wanted to protect his fellow soldiers – whom he still honored and respected – or because he still was uneasy seeing an old picture of himself abusing a prisoner.

But he overcame his discomfort enough to push on and make one last push for accountability. That’s why he handed me this photograph in 2008. It was the last piece of evidence Millantz could give me to support to his story and to try to redress prisoner abuse and torture.

“That was his truth,” Blake said. “That was his evidence that something wrong had happened.”

Even though Millantz still was struggling with medical conditions, he sounded upbeat and positive, determined to overcome his problems and forge ahead.

“I’m still a soldier and always will be,” he said to me the last time we spoke, in late March 2009. “I’m soldiering on, and I’m not going to give up.”

Two weeks later, Millantz died, at age 27, in his home of an overdose of prescription drugs.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Julia B. Chan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Some of the material in this essay is drawn from Joshua E. S. Phillips’ book, “None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture.”

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