The Prisoner in His Palace
CHAPTER 1 Ocala, Florida—September 11, 2001
The phone rang, waking Steve Hutchinson from an uncomfortable sleep. His head was pounding, his mouth sandpaper. He was staying at his cousin’s house, and his large frame was draped across the couch. It felt like it had only been a few hours since he’d passed out there after getting home from a long night working security at the Midnight Rodeo, a rough honky-tonk bar in the central Florida town of Ocala. He blamed the nasty headache on the beers he’d torn through after his shift ended around 4:00 a.m. Though he tried to ignore it, his phone kept ringing, each series of tones sending searing pain through his hungover skull. Too sapped of energy to hold the phone to his ear, he put it on speaker and clumsily dropped it to the floor.
“Turn on the TV,” a voice urged. It was his cousin’s wife, calling from work, and she sounded panicked.
“Which channel?” he asked.
“Any of them,” she replied.
It was just after 9:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001. Hutchinson turned on the television just in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 strike the South Tower of the World Trade Center, not quite twenty minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 had slammed into the North Tower.
Until that morning he’d been on an uncertain career path. A muscular former Georgia high school football and baseball standout,
he’d been working for the county road department during the day and doing some bouncing at the Rodeo at night, but the images of a smoldering lower Manhattan decided something in him. “I wasn’t getting over there fast enough,” he’d later say, referring to his decision to join the Army and go overseas.
Baghdad, Iraq—August 2006
Five years later, Steve Hutchinson, known as Hutch to his buddies, was doing the “duffel bag drag” across the steamy tarmac of Baghdad International Airport, often referred to as BIAP. He’d arrived as part of the 551st Military Police Company based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and he knew the drill. Like many who joined the military in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he’d found himself thrust into an exhausting operational tempo. By 2006, he’d already spent a year deployed to Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003, and another in Afghanistan. He was one of the more tenured members of his squad of eleven other American military policemen, mostly in their twenties, who’d just arrived “downrange.” The youngest, Private Tucker Dawson, wasn’t yet twenty-one; the oldest, Specialist Art Perkins, was in his mid-thirties. With the “War on Terror” already nearly five years old, about half had deployed previously while the other half had spilled from the Air Force C-130 into a combat zone for the first time. The lieutenant to whom they reported, Andre Jackson, was a recent ROTC graduate. The junior enlisted soldiers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) under his command came from all over the United States, though a disproportionate number hailed from working-class communities scattered across the Rust Belt.
They didn’t know it yet, but in a few months they’d be playing a pivotal role in a historical drama they couldn’t have imagined.
The men—there were no women in the squad—had grown reasonably tight in the months preceding deployment. They’d performed countless training missions back at Fort Campbell to
prepare for deployment, which they expected would be spent carrying out assignments common for military policemen—for example, guarding detainees and providing convoy security. And during the training lulls those who were single grabbed some downtime at Kickers bar or the Lodge in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, while the married among them stuck with more domesticated routines, such as taking turns babysitting each other’s kids so that they could enjoy dinner with their wives at the popular Yamato’s Japanese steakhouse off post.
Those who’d deployed before, like Hutchinson, Art Perkins, Tom Flanagan, and Chris Tasker, were familiar with the routine. Less so Tucker Dawson, Adam Rogerson, and Paul Sphar, for whom this was an altogether new adventure. Sphar had barely been allowed to deploy at all, due to his persistent weight problems. In the months leading up to their leaving for Iraq, Sergeant Chris Battaglia had “run the dogshit” out of Sphar to trim his ample midsection. The young private stood out from the others for reasons other than his weight, though. The fact was, he seemed a better match for a skate park or mosh pit than a military parade ground. He was covered in tattoos, proud to have almost a “full shirt” of them.
The soldiers had arrived in Iraq after a marathon journey that took them from Fort Campbell to Maine to Germany to Kuwait to—at last—BIAP’s floodlit tarmac. The temperatures had continued to linger in the nineties even after the sun had set, and before the men had even finished unloading their bags, their clothes were drenched in sweat. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that they were far from home, and that this was for real.