On a gentle knoll within plain view of the Pentagon he once labored to hold to account, Ian Fishback, an anti-torture whistle-blower during the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, was laid to rest Tuesday with full military honors on the nation’s most hallowed ground.
The ceremony, held on a bright morning at Arlington National Cemetery, came almost two years after Mr. Fishback, 42, died of cardiac arrest while in court-mandated mental health care in Michigan. Among those who gathered were much of his family along with fellow veterans, former students and many admirers.
They came to pay respects to a paratrooper and Special Forces officer who dared to challenge the Army on its soldiers’ sustained abuse of Iraqi and Afghan men in their custody. The ceremony also offered a morning for his family and supporters to reflect on what they regard as his unnecessary death while awaiting care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Fishback was a dissident-in-uniform who ultimately set aside a sparkling military career to become a philosopher before entering a dizzying mental health spiral. He was often hard to categorize. The presiding Army chaplain, Maj. Joanna Forbes, highlighted the manner in which he applied the values he embraced as a West Point graduate and as a military officer to protect those who ended up in the Army’s battlefield grasp.
“Ian fought with honor, integrity and courage for his nation and his fellow soldiers too,” Major Forbes said. “And with those same values he also stood up for some viewed only as enemies but, he knew, were people who had the right to just treatment and dignity.”
“I have buried many heroes,” she added. “But none like Ian Fishback.”
After reporting his concerns about prisoner abuse in 2004 to his commanders in the 82nd Airborne Division, then-Captain Fishback staked his career on publicly exposing the crimes. He unequivocally characterized the soldiers’ behavior as torture and described it first as a systemic failure of the military to set standards for prisoner handling and later as a pernicious cover-up that reached all the way to Donald Rumsfeld, then the Secretary of Defense.
In 2005, after his concerns were largely ignored by his commanders and at least one military lawyer, Captain Fishback shared his account of torture with Human Rights Watch. He soon brought forward three anonymous Army sergeants who described for the organization’s investigators beatings, sleep deprivation and other humiliating cruelties to which soldiers in his battalion had subjected detainees in its prisoner-handling routine.
As Human Rights Watch prepared its report, he wrote to Senator John McCain, who had survived torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, informing him of patterns of mistreatment and imploring him “to do justice to your men and women in uniform. Give them clear standards of conduct that reflect the ideals they risk their lives for.”
Captain Fishback’s activism came soon after the exposure of the sexual humiliation and violence committed by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi men in the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. His actions shattered the Pentagon’s insistence that the torture in the prison was an isolated case. In the aftermath, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. It read, in part, that no person in the custody of the United States government, no matter where, “shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Marc Garlasco, the former Human Rights Watch investigator who helped the soldiers bring the abuses to light, said Captain Fishback ranked among the most courageous veterans of the United States’ long and ultimately failed occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq — a young officer who put moral duties and his oath to the Constitution above other concerns.
“Ian’s strong moral courage was all he had after his chain of command told him to stay quiet,” Mr. Garlasco said. “Ian was the only one to stand up and say, ‘No, America shouldn’t torture people.’”
In 2006, Captain Fishback was recognized as one of Time magazine’s 100 influential people of the year. Regardless of the accolades, his life in the Army turned sour. After two deployments to Iraq with the Special Forces, he confided to family and friends that he felt shunned and sometimes threatened by some soldiers, commanders and peers, who treated him as a turncoat.
He pursued a new career in academics, first as a philosophy instructor at West Point and later, after departing the Army at the rank of major, as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. There he studied just-war theory, a genre of philosophy that examines the behavior of combatants. But he did not rebound from the painful isolation of whistle-blowing, an experience that his family says compounded an escalating mental illness, never firmly diagnosed, and that plunged him into periods of paranoia and delusion.
His latter years were an agonizing descent marked by erratic classroom behaviors and repeated public disturbances that led to a court-mandated mental health placement. His treatment, beginning soon after the University of Michigan awarded him a doctorate in 2021, pushed Mr. Fishback back into the news late that year. This time he was a profile of tragedy — the fatal casualty of what his family and supporters described as a seemingly unresponsive V.A., which denied him care as he was shuffled through civilian hospitals and group homes, growing ever more confused and frail while receiving antipsychotic medication against his will, according to medical records.
The details of his involuntary care and the apparent state and federal inaction during what became an enfeeblement so profound that it turned lethal are under review by the state of Michigan and the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Our thoughts are with the family,” said Michael J. Missal, the inspector general, in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s ceremony. “The V.A. Office of Inspector General is continuing our inspection concerning the health care from V.A. that he received. We will release our findings publicly once completed.”
Early this year, after The New York Times Magazine published an investigation into Mr. Fishback’s decline and death, Denis R. McDonough, the V.A. secretary, conceded in a speech to the American Legion that the department had “failed” to fulfill its responsibilities to the former officer. “We all have to be there for veterans when it matters most, especially in times of crisis,” Mr. McDonough said. “We didn’t carefully coordinate our response to his needs across federal, state and county systems.”
Given Mr. Fishback’s troubling history with both the Department of Defense and the V.A., the decision of his father, John Fishback, to have his cremated remains interred at Arlington National Cemetery was difficult.
Mr. Fishback’s parents divorced when he was child. His mother, Sharon Ableson, opposed the decision and declined to attend. Her family has many military veterans of whom she is proud, but, she said, the Army and the V.A. betrayed her son and his ideals and she could not endorse a Pentagon-affiliated cemetery as his resting place. “I’m nauseous thinking about Ian being interred at Arlington,” she said. “He was so appalled by the ethics of the military and their treatment of human beings in their command.”
She added that she hoped his legacy might still inspire others and lead to reform. “I hope some real change comes from Ian being on the planet,” she said. “I’m doubtful but hopeful.”
His father, a former Marine Corps machine-gunner and a wounded veteran of the war in Vietnam, shared his former wife’s distrust of the military and disgust at their son’s treatment. But in an interview the night before the ceremony, he said he chose interment at Arlington so other dissidents and whistle-blowers, and those moved by Mr. Fishback’s ethics and courage, could find him in a prominent setting near the nation’s capital.
To fulfill that wish, he said, “Arlington is the best I could do.” With his son’s remains in an urn on a table nearby, Mr. Fishback said he had bought a Veterans For Peace ball cap to wear to the event, to honor what Ian Fishback came to represent.
On Tuesday, after being presented the folded burial flag, John Fishback sat in a wheelchair wearing his antiwar cap and greeted a diverse procession of well-wishers. He expressed gratitude for both a solemn farewell choreographed by the cemetery’s chaplain and honor guard, and for the years shared with a son gone to the grave young. “I had 42 years with that wonderful man,” he said. “That’s the way I have to see it.”
John Ismay contributed reporting.