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Saddam's U.S. army nurse got to see the humanity of a mass murderer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - Robert Ellis' book describing Saddam Hussein's imprisonment before his execution may make some readers cringe, but not because he was treated badly.

From Camp Cropper, where the Iraqi dictator was held before his execution, Master Sgt. Ellis, an Army nurse, provides a personal account of his daily encounters with Saddam as he monitored his health and well-being. From nearly every angle that Ellis provides, readers learn that Saddam's captors treated him humanely and respectfully. The cringe factor comes from Ellis himself.

Ellis confesses that he couldn't help but like Saddam. In his book "Caring for Victor: A U.S. Army Nurse and Saddam Hussein" (188 pages, $25, Reedy Press), he describes the late dictator as courageous, compassionate and charismatic, among other positive attributes.

At the same time, Ellis harbored no illusions about who he was dealing with: the man the military provided with the code name Victor. The book he wrote with former Post-Dispatch reporter Marianna Riley lays out the case against Saddam, including the mass killings and the torture chambers. Ellis said, if it were up to him, he would have spared Saddam the hangman's noose so as to deny him martyrdom.

Still, Ellis found Saddam compelling on so many other levels. As a man who came from a tough neighborhood just like Ellis. As a family man. As a neat freak. As a nature lover. Perhaps most of all he appreciated Saddam's quiet dignity in sharp contrast to many other Iraqi officials held in the same facility who were malcontents and troublemakers.

Ellis surmises that his take on Saddam may be why he had trouble finding a major publisher for his book. Instead, Ellis and Riley turned to Reedy Press in their hometown, a company that produces books mostly with a local flavor. Reedy published a handsome volume with numerous photographs. It's a fast, easy and fluent read. It's also provocative -- but not in the sort of way that fires up conversation on talk shows.

At a time when so many media commentators encourage their audiences to see everything in terms of black and white, good and evil, Ellis steadfastly sees shades of gray even in someone as notoriously evil as Saddam. So does Riley who encouraged Ellis to tell as much about his own life as about his encounters with Saddam. Riley said she believed that Ellis' gentle, sometimes amusing and at times horrifying account of growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex would helps readers understand how he could relate to Saddam.

"I was hoping we could handle that well enough so that people could understand," Riley said.

Ellis' reading of Iraqi history tells him that Saddam's brutality came from a need to protect himself, his family and those loyal to him. "He was once a street fighter like I was when I was a kid," Ellis wrote. "I was fighting thugs and bullies in the projects; he was fighting gangs in Tikrit and later Baghdad.

"Although I'm not drawing precise parallels between his early life and mine, I can't help but be struck with how we both started our lives with a shared conviction that the outsider world was a mean and hostile, that we had only our own wits and wiles to rely on, and then we had to watch our backs at all times."

This analysis -- or rationalization if readers prefer to look at it that way -- did not stem from any conversation that Ellis had with Saddam. Ellis was forbidden to discuss such matters with the prisoner. And, in any case, Ellis did not speak Arabic and Saddam just a bit of English.

The nurse was there to assure first and foremost that the dictator did not die while in U.S. custody. Secondarily, but also importantly, Saddam should be made comfortable and more or less content with his situation.

This wasn't just a matter of proper procedure or a desire to compensate for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It was part of a strategy to elicit as much information from the dictator before turning him over to Iraqi authorities. (By most accounts, Saddam's interrogator, FBI Special Agent George Piro was tremendously successful.)

Enjoying Time With A Murderer

For Ellis, that meant responding quickly to any physical complaint -- even a tummy ache. By Ellis' account when Saddam found that he could trust his nurse, he reached out to him on a personal level.

"Very quickly it became apparent that Saddam wanted more from me than pills," Ellis wrote. "On one of my early visits he held up his hand to stop me when I was starting to give him his evening meds. 'No,' he said, and I was ready to assert my authority when he picked up a writing pad and started to read what he had written. 'I know you can't understand, but I like to read this to you,' he said. It was poetry.

"I allowed him to continue and he read for maybe three or four minutes. After he finished, he slapped the tablet as if satisfied.

" 'Now we do medicine,' he said, and I took his blood pressure and gave him his pills. I think this was his way of maintaining some semblance of being in control, and I had no problem with letting that happen. I believe in treating the whole person and not just aches and pains. In Saddam's case -- in everybody's case -- this includes his psychological well-being, and reading, writing and having a teeny amount of control was part of Saddam's.

"That was the beginning of our relationship. The same scenario would be repeated -- with variations -- in the weeks and months to come. He would read; and I would sit and listen, and then he would try to explain it to me. Basically, he wanted to socialize, and we did."

The care and socializing weighed on Ellis' mind and his conscience. "I was enjoying my time with a mass murderer," he recalled "I was laughing with a demon. Almost as soon as I identified the feeling, I tried to shake it off and get back into my soldier mode."

And yet, the soldier mode called on Ellis to cater to Saddam's needs that some might construe as coddling. The dictator was battling high blood pressure, and he told the nurse that in the past cigars had helped. Though he knew of no medical evidence to support that conclusion, he and a camp physician went shopping at a bazaar and returned with some Cohibas.

"I'd never smoked a cigar, and Saddam took it upon himself to teach me," Ellis wrote. "'Don't inhale,' he told me, and I didn't.

"He seldom smoked an entire cigar. He'd get halfway through and stop, saying 'Save for later.' Sometimes he'd just wave the cigar in front of his nose and just savor the aroma of the half-smoked cigar. I considered this to be an example of both his frugality and good coping skills, making do with a partly smoked cigar."

Reluctant Admiration

Ellis found other things to like about the way Saddam conducted himself. He kept himself and his cell immaculately clean. Each day he would wash one of his two pieces of clothing. He tended a small garden. He fed bread crumbs to birds. In the time that he had left, he focused on the little things that gave him pleasure.

And then came a moment that many readers may find hard to reconcile and one that Ellis struggles with as well.

When Ellis learned that his 52-year-old brother Larry had died and that he would need to return to the U.S., he made time to talk once more with Saddam. "I knew they were planning to move him to new quarters, possibly before I returned. I didn't want him to think that I had deserted him," Ellis wrote. "So I made an unscheduled stop at his cell to tell him that I was leaving for America in one hour, and why. He understood immediately. What came next couldn't have been more of a surprise.

"Saddam Hussein stood up, embraced me, and said he would be my brother."

Ellis said that in the last days that he spent with Saddam he saw man who had "come to grips with his past. I know he'd convinced himself that everything he did was for Iraq. I think he accepted both his imprisonment without fear and his execution as not only inevitable but a way to ensure his legacy.

"Reluctantly, I admire that. If nothing else -- for better or for worse -- he had faith in himself."

It has been nearly three years since Saddam's execution. And Ellis said he has yet to entirely be at peace come to grips with his experience in Iraq. He returned from Iraq depressed and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He says he is much better now and enjoys his work as an operating nurse at Barnes-Jewish hospital.

Still he wrestles with the idea that he and Saddam could find common ground. "He was a despot with dignity," is the way he put it during an interview. Ellis says the Saddam conundrum will burden him for the rest of his life. Sharing it with others makes it easier to bear.