Tonganoxie chief reflects on tour in Iraq
Police Chief Kenny Carpenter is spending his workdays in Tonganoxie now.
But two years ago, he was far from home, keeping guard over one of the world's most notorious men -- Saddam Hussein.
In light of the recent execution of Hussein, Iraq's former president, Carpenter said he now feels more comfortable talking about his experiences serving at the detention center where Hussein lived.
Carpenter, who recently retired as a command sergeant major from the Army Reserve, spent 2004 as the senior sergeant major of the high-value detention center in the Baghdad area. Serving as the command sergeant major, he was the senior enlisted military person at the facility. Carpenter was a member of the 439th Military Police Detachment, the Omaha-based unit charged with running the detention facility from January 2004 through January 2005. Among the high-profile detainees were Saddam Hussein and his high-level command staff. Carpenter said he could not provide details about the detention center.
However, he did provide some general information about his work at the center, where the former Iraqi dictator lived until his execution on Dec. 29.
For Carpenter, it was a long 12 months that he spent working at the detention center. It was a year away from home, as well as from his work in Tonganoxie. Carpenter has been Tonganoxie's police chief since January 2000. And it was a year he will long remember, having worked in the detention center where Hussein, and other high-level Iraqi detainees, were held.
One of Carpenter's assignments was to screen detainees' incoming and outgoing mail. In doing so, he saw another side to the detainees.
"I knew how dangerous of people they were," Carpenter said. "But on the other hand, through reading their mail you realized that to their grandkids they're still grandpa. ... You couldn't help but feel for the families who were struggling because their spouses were detainees."
Carpenter said detainees were allowed to write one letter a week to an approved person.
During the year he had only minimal contact with Hussein.
"I gave him his mail," Carpenter said. "My visits were limited. I did not see him nearly as much as the guards at his cell did. Nobody was back in his area unless they had business to conduct. It was a very secure area."
Carpenter said Hussein was pleasant to detention center staff, who were American military personnel.
"Saddam was very polite and obeyed the guards," Carpenter said. "I don't think it was necessarily because he was a good person, but because he was very smart and knew that the better he acted with us the better treatment he would have."
Security was a constant concern.
Carpenter said at one time, an intelligence report revealed a possible plan to break in and free detainees. However, that didn't materialize.
Soldiers at the detention center were responsible for security, as well as for the daily routine of caring for detainees.
"We were concerned about many things, because our job was to keep him (Hussein) healthy for the trial," Carpenter said.
While the safety of the food served to Hussein was just one concern, Carpenter said Hussein usually ate the same mess hall food that was served to the detention center's staff.
The detention center's staff tried to shield Hussein from current events.
"He did not have a newspaper or TV," Carpenter said.
However, Carpenter said Hussein spent time reading books, including the Koran. And the former Iraqi dictator prayed on a prayer rug the center's staff provided.
In prison, Hussein was well-groomed, Carpenter said, noting he often wore the traditional Iraqi robes.
Carpenter was at the detention center as Hussein's first court appearance neared.
"I and the sergeant major serving as the deputy warden wanted Hussein to wear prison clothing and handcuffs to court," Carpenter said, "But Major General Godfrey Miller, the commander of detainee operations for all of Iraq, said he had to wear a suit without handcuffs."
They sent a translator to town to buy suits.
During Carpenter's time at the detention center, the commander of the 439th filed a report on a daily basis. Some of these daily reports went to President Bush.
Throughout his 2004 Iraq tour, Carpenter said, he was aware of the seriousness of the situation -- that they were guarding Hussein.
"It made our assignment probably more interesting, knowing who we were dealing with, not just Saddam, but all the detainees," Carpenter said. "All the detainees had been high-level regime members."
Earlier in his military career, Carpenter was on active duty in the U.S. Marines Corps for four years, including one year in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. He served in the Kansas Army National Guard for 20 years. He retired, then left retirement to go into the army reserves. He said he thinks the 2004 duty in Iraq concluded his military service.
Since returning home to Kansas two years ago, Carpenter kept track of the proceedings of Hussein's trial.
Carpenter said he wasn't surprised that Hussein was executed just weeks after his court trial.
"The Iraqi system is completely different than the United States," Carpenter said.