Friday, February 28, 2014

A story of courage: Alyssa Peterson (1976–2003)

In the past several years, I have related these stories of 20 otherwise ordinary people whose lives exhibited a special kind of courage: moral courage.  Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger. if you took no personal risk; you didn't exhibit moral courage.

Here are some some points I've tried to make about courage; specifically about moral courage, the type exhibited by the people I've profiled:


  • Courage is not reserved for extraordinary people only. 
  • Courage is always individual. 
  • Courage is something we are all capable of.
  • Courage is something we should exhibit every day. 



In September 2003, a 27-year-old female soldier, a Mormon, US Army Specialist Alyssa Peterson, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division at Tal Afar base, refused to apply the interrogation techniques that had been authorized for use on Iraqi prisoners.


Alyssa Peterson refused to take part in interrogations in the "cage" where Iraqis were stripped naked in front of female soldiers who mocked them and were burned with cigarettes, among other things that don't need to be mentioned.  Do you blame her for refusing to participate in actions like these?

Three days after her refusal to be involved in torture, on September 15, 2003, Peterson was found dead of a gunshot wound at Tal Afar base. Keep in mind, her suicide occurred 7 months before the Abu Ghraib tortures were exposed to the world.  Seven months before millions of people saw what she saw.  Seven months before we learned about the horrendous actions that she steadfastly refused to be part of. 

The Army’s official cause of her death, which is all that her family was told, was death from a "non-hostile weapons discharge." The suicide and the report of the Army's internal investigation was uncovered by KNAU (Flagstaff, AZ) public radio reporter Kevin Elston.  The public didn't find out the truth until Elston's broadcast in November 2005, three years after Alyssa Peterson's suicide.  Without Elston's tenacious pursuit of the truth; it is likely no one would ever have found out what really happened.  You can read a transcript of Elston's broadcast here


The Army, after having first tried to cover up the truth, has since classified her death as suicide. 

From the investigation of her death:



"We told her that you have to be able to turn on and off the interrogation mode -- that you act differently towards the people we meet with outside of the detainee facility," one fellow soldier stated. She said that she did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."

Sometimes being a hero or heroine is a simple act of refusing to abandon one's humanity when all around have forsaken their own.   Most Americans silently hope they're never forced to make that choice because I believe, deep down, they know they won't make the right one.


I'm not saying that suicide was the right choice for Alyssa Peterson; but when she was faced with a choice between loyalty to a country and loyalty to her own principles, I do think she absolutely made the correct choice, and the courageous choice.  She chose her own death rather than abandoning her humanity.  I think she should've chosen, instead, to desert from the military or even to defect from her country, and to go public with her knowledge.  And she may have done that, if more of us (in the summer of 2003) had been ready to listen, and to support her in that decision.   Maybe she would have if her family and friends hadn't been urging her to risk her life in a senseless war that they weren't willing, able, or courageous enough to fight in themselves. Maybe she would have if most of the nation hadn't been such shameless cheerleaders for a war based on a framework of outrageous lies.  Maybe she would have, if more of us had been stronger and more courageous.


It's up to us now to act bravely.  It's up to us to demand that our government tell us the truth.



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Army Specialist Alyssa R. Peterson, age 27