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UMFK student soldier serving in Iraq's Abu Graib prison shares his experience

July 23, 2004

NR04143

The rows of cells at Iraq's now infamous Abu Graib prison may seem a world away from the relative tranquility of the corridors at the University of Maine at Fort Kent this summer, and certainly for one U.S. soldier serving there the contrast could not be more stark.

For 20-year-old Nicholas S. Quint, a UMFK student from Hodgdon, Maine, now serving his country as a guard at the Iraqi jail that made headlines earlier this year when images of prisoner abuse at the hands of the U.S. military there surfaced, the rigors of exams and college work pale in comparison to the new challenges he faces today.

A short nine months ago, Quint, a National Guardsmen who signed up to be a member of Maine's Bravo Battery while still in high school, was in the middle of completing his second semester of study at UMFK when, as he calls it, "this little adventure" began.

"We had to wait from our first notice on October 30 until December 20 before our common task training began," said Quint, who is now serving in Iraq in the 152nd Field Artillery Unit.

The nearly two month window afforded the student soldier the opportunity to complete his semester of study on the Fort Kent campus.

Beginning January 3, Quint and other members of his unit began a six-week intensive training on military policing at Fort Dix in New Jersey. They were then flown to Camp Wolverine in Kuwait before being flown into Baghdad International Airport.

"Before we left Baghdad International Airport we got a convoy briefing on what to look out for. This was when the reality of getting shot at or blown up really kicked in," wrote Quint in an e-mail to UMFK university relations office. "We were transported on the back of this five ton and I think I was kind of in culture shock. I couldn't believe how people lived and the look of the landscape of the country."

The constant fear for his own life, being surrounded by a people living in rampant poverty and grueling desert climate are among the many dichotomies from his native Northern Maine that Quint experiences daily.

"The heat is the worst thing that we are dealing with right now. This month and next, we are expecting to reach 150's, 160's. The hottest that I have seen it so far is 149 or so. The closest thing that I can compare this to is if you took a blow dryer, put it on high, and then point it at your face. That's what it feels like when the wind blows. It's just so hot and dry," writes Quint.

The high temperatures are not, however, the rationale behind Quint's description of his physical location as the "hot zone".

The Abu Graib prison where he is serving is centered in the area of Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle, between the capital Baghdad and the city of Falluja, both areas where insurgents frequently strike with deadly force.

"In April we were living hell. One day we got hit with 57 mortars. I wasn't working, but my buddies and my cousin were, so I was worried until we found out everyone was okay," wrote Quint. "Things were quiet for some time now, but have been starting up since the turnover. It's bad when we're out in the open. There isn't much cover and shrapnel flies everywhere and you don't know where the next round is going to land."

However, according to Quint, what is happening outside of the prison walls today is a different kind of violence than that which occurred at Abu Graib prior to the U.S. led war.

"Abu Graib is like Alcatraz back in the United States. To the Iraqi people this is the place of death. Abu Graib is where people came to die," said Quint. "Saddam used to execute thousands and torture thousands a year here. I had some detainees tell me about some of the horrible things that used to take place inside the walls of Abu."

Hearing the horror stories of inmates is part of a day's work for Quint. It's a job he takes seriously and one which provides him unique challenges.

"My job is that I'm here for the security and safety of the detainees. It's a relatively easy job, but it's difficult because there are so many of them and so few of us. Most people in here are here for attacks on coalition forces. I've been threatened and some of my buddies have had rocks thrown at them, and stuff like that happens," said Quint.

What stirs this young County soldier perhaps more than anything at the world's now most infamous prison is not what is currently happening at the facility or even what happened under Saddam's rule, but rather what happened in between.

"The prisoner abuse scandal is a big issue. I am proud of my country and its flag. I want to look back and say I am proud to have served my country as a soldier. I don't know what was going on with the abuse scandal. That happened before the 152nd got into the country. It came out while we were here and it made me mad because it made us look like we were the ones that were guilty," said Quint.

"All that I know is that I treat them with respect and dignity. I follow the soldier's creed because it means a lot to me and I have pride and dignity for myself. What happened was wrong and we are making changes. The units that are here are setting the example on how detainee operations are run. I am proud to be a part of the team that made things here better," added Quint.

There is another team, half a world away that Quint is looking forward to rejoining someday soon.

"I do plan on going back to school. UMFK was very supportive during my deployment. I got put on alert in the middle of the fall semester. That screwed things up for me, but the faculty and staff didn't penalize me for that. I appreciate that. I do look forward to coming back. This is just something that's got to be done and I plan on doing my best for the next eight or so months to come," said Quint.

In the meantime, the UMFK campus community has not forgotten about Quint. He has been placed on the campus newsletter mailing, and was recently sent a care package by members of the student senate.