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Witnessing Dachau or Auschwitz in Iraq
The TriVally Herald
Battle to forget atrocity is lost for guardsman
By Rob Dennis
December 13, 2004

Capt. Jarrell Southall still can't shake the nightmares.

They intrude on his sleep with military precision at 2 every morning -- horrific visions of starving, beaten, tortured men. Men he tried to help. Men he was ordered to abandon.

Southall, a Union City resident who taught history at the Challenger School in Newark before he was called back to uniform and sent to Iraq, gives his nightmares a historical context.

"It stank of near-death," he says, his gaze fixed on the desktop in his office at the Camp Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin. "What I'd compare this to would be witnessing Dachau or Auschwitz before the Final Solution -- 1941 or 1939 in a German concentration camp. Historically speaking, that's how I'd explain what I saw."

Southall, 40, a soft-spoken animal lover and former Marine, has served tours of duty in Somalia, the Korean DMZ and other less-than-salubrious locales around the globe.

Still, nothing had prepared him for that June day in Baghdad when his squad of national guardsmen stumbled upon an atrocity they were told to forget.

"We tried to help those people, and we weren't allowed to help them," he says. "It still haunts me. The damage to those prisoners who were abused ... haunts me so much."

Everything changes

Born in the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas, Southall was heavily influenced by the

World War II veterans he met in his youth.

He joined the Marines when he was 17, but he gave up professional soldiering 11 years later to attend the University of Oregon.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in geological sciences, he moved to Stanford with his then-girlfriend, whom he would later marry. He found work as a middle school teacher at the Challenger School, where he was popular and respected, earning a place in "Who's Who Among America's Teachers."

"He is an inspiration to everybody," says Debbie Lincavage, the director's assistant at the school. "His students love him. ... He was just an awesome teacher. He truly is one of those amazing individuals who you really don't run into all that often."

But the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought that world crashing down around him.

"Other teachers came in and said, 'Hey, they bombed the Pentagon, they bombed the Towers,'" Southall says. "I thought they were joking. I said, 'Surely no one would attack the U.S.A.'"

Two months later, Southall was called back to active duty with the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, of the Oregon Army National Guard.

"We hated to lose him as a teacher, but on the other hand I couldn't think of a better person to serve overseas and guard our young men over there," Lincavage says.

A treacherous road

Southall spent seven months of his first year-long deployment in the Sinai Peninsula, where he commanded a company guarding the northernmost sector of the Israeli-Egyptian border.

He returned to the United States in February 2003, did some substitute and summer school teaching at Challenger, and waited in limbo. Then in August, he got his orders: Iraq.

After training and other preparations at Fort Hood, Texas, his company was shipped overseas in February 2004. They stayed in Kuwait for a time, then set off along the main highway to Baghdad.

"That was a very treacherous road," he says. "It was supposed to be secure. What we were told was it would basically be a walk in the park. Iraq was won. The war was over. Mission accomplished. We wouldn't see any combat, basically."

It didn't turn out that way. As they traveled along "RPG Alley," the dangerous 10-mile stretch of road linking Baghdad International Airport with the central part of the city, the convoy in front of them was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Southall's company was trapped in its soft-skinned Humvees until a tanker truck demolished a guard rail, allowing them to flee the road and regroup.

For about a month, Southall was separated from most of his unit, camping with other troops in an old artillery base near al-Taji.

"The enemy was all around us," he says. "We had enemy in the wire almost every night. We were mortared every day. Small arms fire all the time. And all the while we had soft-skinned Humvees ... not even regular Humvees."

They also lacked food and medical supplies. Temperatures soared to 153 degrees in the chemical toilets. And, of course, soldiers were being killed.

"What was appalling was the lack of planning," he says. "It seems like there was no planning for combat operations. ... There was no aggressive way to defeat the enemy. It was almost like we were victims."

In April, Southall joined the list of casualties, though he was luckier than most. Between mortar attacks, a heavy trucker's bungee cord they had used to jury-rig armor for the Humvees snapped, whacking him in the temple.

The injury might have caused the blood clots that eventually got him shipped back home. But that wouldn't be for another four months.


It was June 29 when Southall and a dozen or so other guardsmen swept into the walled compound of the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad, after a scout reported seeing scenes of prisoner abuse so bad he was asking for permission to open fire on the jailers.

They found at least 150 detainees who had been rounded up in an east Baghdad neighborhood, in what the new Iraqi administration called a crackdown on crime, according to reports. Most of those arrested were immigrants or poor Iraqis. The youngest was about 14.

Southall, a converted Sunni Muslim who speaks some Arabic, was able to get some of the prisoners to open up after he recited the Islamic shahada , or profession of faith.

They told him they'd been denied food and water for three days. They'd been beaten. They'd been tortured. The welts and bruises on their bodies bore this out, as did the metal rods, rubber hoses and various other implements found in a nearby building.

The prisoners he talked to mostly were Sudanese, Southall says, and he believes this was the main reason for their ill treatment by the Iraqi police. Given the jailers' well-kept appearance, he took them to be former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.

The jailers, though, denied abusing the prisoners, whom they described as "dangerous criminals."

The guardsmen called in a military police unit to disarm the more than 60 Iraqi police and interrogators, then waited while Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, the highest-ranking American at the scene, radioed for instructions.

In a move that shocked Southall and the rest of the squad, Hendrickson was ordered, over the lieutenant colonel's strong objections, to return the prisoners to their captors and withdraw his troops. In the days that followed, there were reports that many of the prisoners were released. Still, the memory stings for Southall.

"I had to leave these guys that were hungry, that needed medical aid," he says. "They were certainly going to die if they were left in that condition."

Southall removes his wire-rimmed glasses to rub his eyes, choking back sobs as the memories come flooding back.

"I can't shake it, you know, I can't shake it. The nightmares."

The Oregonian newspaper reported the abuse in August, using the accounts of several guardsmen, including Southall, the only one who would allow his name to be used.

A month later, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the guardsmen "should be commended for their initiative," the Oregonian reported. However, Myers said, the prisoners had to be returned to their captors to reinforce "the authority and responsibility of the Iraqi government to handle its internal affairs."

The abuse had been uncovered the day after Iraq's sovereignty was restored.

Coming home

As news of the confrontation was about to be made public, Southall was sent home, suffering from blood clots in his head and lungs. In the months that followed, he would be struck repeatedly by headaches, seizures and stroke-like symptoms.

Still, he felt bad about leaving his comrades, who were in the middle of a massive fight in Sadr City.

"I didn't want to leave my Joes," he says. "I didn't want to leave my friends in the middle of all that."

Now, though, his biggest fear is that he will be sent back.

"Right now, emotionally, I don't think I'm ready," he says. "Emotionally, I don't think I could handle another combat tour."

He enjoys his new assignment with the 91st Division, a training support group based at Camp Parks. He's slowly recuperating, too, though he only recently regained the ability to drive.

He wants to get back to teaching, buy a home and return to college to earn his doctorate in paleontology, or perhaps Middle Eastern studies.

"It's really hard coming home, trying to start your life," he says. "Even going to my school -- the parents, the kids, the teachers, the principals. You know, they love me, it's just ... I feel like I'm a person out of a body looking down on these people. I don't even feel like a real person anymore."

Southall's life has changed immeasurably since 9/11. His wife filed for divorce. He lost buddies in Iraq, including a close friend of 23 years, dating back to his Marine days. He even lost his 19-year-old cat, Bubba, who died before Southall could return. Rufus, a cat he tried to rescue from Iraq, ran off during a stopover in Kuwait.

And there are the ever-present nightmares.

"I'm still haunted by the memories of the war," he says. "I lost everything. But you've got to carry on. You've got to pick up your pieces and carry on. So that's what I'm doing."

Staff writer Rob Dennis can be reached at (510) 353-7014 or at rdennis@angnewspapers.com .