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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Scapegoat’ pays for Abu Ghraib

Bob Braun The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger

The facilities were clean, comfortable and safe.

The routine permitted daily workouts in a gym, a few hours watching television, quiet time to read the Bible.

The guards – while young and inexperienced with no exposure to war – were fair and by-the-book.

For Javal Davis of Roselle, N.J., the lockup at the Army base in Fort Sill, Okla., was, in so many ways, far from the prison in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, Iraq.

He was a prisoner at one, a prison guard at the other.

“I know I thought about that – the irony – and it was so strange,” says Davis, who returned home last week after 92 days of incarceration.

He was sent to the minimum-security detention center at Fort Sill by a military jury for his role in the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, where he had been posted as a prison guard – although he had been trained as a military policeman.

“That was a big difference,” says Davis, 27. “The guards were trained as guards. That’s what they did. That’s not what we were trained to do.”

The other difference, he says, was the conditions he faced at Abu Ghraib.

“Not even close,” he says. “I wish they had seen some of what we had seen.”

And, of course, no superior officer felt a need to get actionable intelligence from a group of guys in prison browns at Fort Sill, most of whom were there for drug possession and other minor offenses while in the military.

But that’s not something Davis will talk much about. Yes, he says, he feels he was a “scapegoat” and rankles at the “selective” nature of who was prosecuted for Abu Ghraib abuses and who wasn’t.

The problem is Davis is still on the hook with the military. He and his lawyer, Paul Bergrin of Newark, N.J., are still fighting for something – an order of clemency that, while it won’t give the young man back his 92 days in jail, could erase the bad conduct discharge that will haunt his efforts to get good work for the rest of his life.

“We won’t rest,” says Bergrin, “until this good soldier gets the honorable discharge he deserves for all the service and sacrifice he gave to his country.”

So Bergrin, as a lawyer, can go on at length about all he will do to limit the damage to Davis’ future prospects for employment. He can talk about how most superior officers have emerged from the scandal all but untouched – and a brigadier general busted down to colonel, as Janis Karpinski was, is not several months in prison and a bad conduct discharge.

Bergrin can talk about how the full burden of Abu Ghraib fell on eight reservists who were dismissed as merely “bad apples” despite evidence to the contrary.

“I’m not a bad apple,” Davis interjects. “I am a good person.”

But Davis must walk a narrow line. The world of Abu Ghraib and our reaction to it still plays out like some sort of theater of the absurd. No one but a few kids, most poor and poorly trained, pays for what happened – Davis’ crime was that he stepped on the fingers and toes of Iraqi inmates he was told had rioted and threatened the life of a prison guard.

So Davis still has to be the good soldier who wants his honor back. He will say he is “hurt, terribly hurt” by what his government did to him, but he can’t express the anger he must feel.

“I remember someone putting handcuffs on me,” says Davis about the night he was sentenced. “That was so weird. So unlike anything I’d known in my whole life.”

He was put in a van and driven to the Bell County jail near Fort Hood, Texas, where the court proceedings were held. Then he was placed in an isolation cell.

“I sat in that cell and closed my eyes and it all came crashing down on me. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.”

Eleven days later, he was taken to Fort Sill, where, he said, he received nothing but sympathy from inmates and even from some guards.

“Guys would tell me, ‘Hey, man, you got a bad rap, you don’t belong here.’ “

On the plane back to Newark last week, several passengers recognized him, he says, and told him they thought what happened to him was unfair.

Then, at the baggage carousel, waiting for one of his Army duffels to come around, he heard a familiar voice behind him crying out, “My baby, that’s my baby!”

He turned to see his mother, Michele, in tears, running toward him. They embraced and the crowd in the terminal broke out in applause.

Happens with some frequency lately. Just another kid back from Iraq.

Sort of.

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