by Sean August Camoni
Personally, the single most disturbing detail in the entire NCIS report was that the dead men had rags deep in their throats. My first reaction to that image was an instinctual abhorrence, much the same as when I imagine death by drowning. What could be a more terrifying way to die? The rags in the throats are especially disturbing not only for this horror-movie quality, but also because they strongly undermine the military investigation’s conclusions about what happened that night. The more I consider this detail, the less it seems to jibe with the official account of “suicide by hanging.” The rags became even more important later, when I heard Sergeant Joe Hickman’s account of the meeting he attended the morning following the deaths with Colonel Bumgarner, who told Sergeant Hickman and about 50 others that the men died because of rags stuffed in their throats, but that wouldn’t be what they heard on the news. At the beginning, I didn’t know that. All I had was the NCIS report, but still, those rags haunted me.
According to the medics, the rags were found when they tried to intubate a detainee and found the airway was obstructed. The obstruction, when removed, was a rag, or cloth, large enough to block the airway. But how did it get there, and why?
If these men killed themselves by hanging themselves from the ceiling of a locked cell, then I must logically conclude that each detainee put the rag in his own mouth. Ignoring the question of “why” for the moment, let’s follow that scenario through to the end. I place a rag in my mouth. I bind my own hands and feet and throw a hood over my head, a noose around my neck. I step off the sink. What happens? The noose constricts my throat. It closes the trachea, or windpipe, which leads to suffocation (because I can no longer breathe) and I die. Now, if the windpipe is closed off, how do I inhale the rag?
So it can’t have happened after I step off the sink. What about before I step off? Do I swallow the rag? Even assuming I could get it past my gag reflex, it wouldn’t matter— swallowing would pull the rag down the esophagus toward the stomach, not the trachea toward the lungs. So I didn’t swallow it. That leaves aspirating the rag, or breathing it down my own windpipe, and then hanging my self. This makes no sense.
First, imagine yourself purposely sucking a sock down your own windpipe. If you accidentally aspirate a small amount of water when drinking (i.e., it “goes down the wrong pipe”), what happens? You choke and cough it up involuntarily. Your body won’t let you breathe in anything but air without fighting you. So physically, it is highly unlikely that a person could do this (let alone three), but let’s say they did. Would it be quiet enough so as not to attract a guard? Certainly not. There’d be thrashing and coughing and heaving and choking as the body struggled to expel the mass. Far from a quiet affair. Further, even assuming a human being (or three) could physically commit the act of inhaling a rag, why do that AND hang yourself? If you planned on inhaling the rag, you’d have to do so with the purpose of cutting off your supply of air. Hanging yourself accomplishes the exact same goal. Why do both? If one could inhale a rag effectively, that would seem to be far less disruptive under the circumstances of constant surveillance. If you could quietly inhale a sock and die on your mattress, no one would know until morning at least. On the other hand, if you wanted to make a statement and hang yourself right under the guards’ noses, why suck a rag down your windpipe and take the risk of blacking out before you can complete the preparations and step off the sink? Why the redundancy? It’s patently ridiculous, and utterly implausible. I don’t buy it.
I try to imagine a scenario in which the human body could inhale a rag, deep enough into the trachea to effectively block passage of a medical tube. I imagine breathing, with a rag in my mouth. I would breathe through my nose instinctually, so my nose would have to be blocked somehow. So my nose is blocked, and I have a rag in my mouth. My hands must be restrained somehow, otherwise, why would I not, instinctually, take the rag out of my mouth? I need air. I must be struggling to draw a breath. I must be pulling hard with my diaphragm, sucking for a drop of oxygen to make it past the obstruction in my mouth and into my lungs— but none comes. I pull harder and harder; I am dying. My body’s need for air overcomes the reflexive reactions that would otherwise resist, and my struggling sucking pulls the rag in my mouth down my throat, and I am helpless to do anything about it. I die, choked with a rag deep in my throat.
This is the only scenario that I can come up with in which the human body could aspirate a foreign object as bulky and difficult as a rag big enough to clog the trachea.
What scenario includes all of these elements? Hands restrained: the dead men’s hands were bound, so perhaps hands bound. Rag in the mouth. Nasal passage obstructed. Each dead man had ligature marks around the neck, so maybe some sort of binding around the neck. A struggle for air.
A horror akin to drowning.