'It was like losing a family member': The US soldier who cried after Saddam Hussein's execution

By Isaac M September 2, 2023

In August 2006, Specialist Adam Rogerson was standing metres away from Saddam Hussein as he slept in his cell beneath the Iraqi High Tribunal building in Baghdad.

The American soldier had not yet laid eyes on the Iraqi dictator who was widely considered to be one of the most evil men on the planet.

The US had invaded Iraq in March 2003, with President George W Bush saying he wanted to end “Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism”.

The Iraqi president went on the run as airstrikes rained down on the country he had ruled since 1979.

Months later, US soldiers found him hiding in a small hole barely big enough to fit one person in Ad-Dawr, central Iraq.

The now heavily-bearded and dishevelled despot, who was estimated to be responsible for the deaths of at least 250,000 Iraqis, would be put on trial for multiple charges including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

When he wasn’t being kept in a cell beneath the Iraqi High Tribunal building, one of Hussein’s many former palaces was now his prison, and Mr Rogerson was among 12 US soldiers tasked with guarding him.

With Hussein’s reputation for mass murder, torture, and brutal repression, the young soldier can be forgiven for being unenthusiastic when he found out he would be spending so much time with the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad”.

Saddam Hussein appears in video footage on the day the Iraq War began on 20 March 2003
Saddam Hussein appears in video footage on the day the Iraq War began on 20 March 2003

But in the months that followed they struck up the unlikeliest of friendships – with Mr Rogerson breaking down in tears when Hussein was executed in December 2006.

It’s not how the 22-year-old soldier would have been expecting to feel after he first made eye contact with the murderous dictator months earlier.

“I was told I would be the first one on guard. It was very intimidating for me because I knew who he was,” Mr Rogerson told the latest episode of the Sky News Daily podcast.

“At first it was dark and I could hear him sleeping but I couldn’t see him… A bit later he woke up and looked at me and I looked back at him.

“That was the start of our relationship – it was very surreal.”

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Hussein looked far from presidential after he was captured
Hussein looked far from presidential after he was captured

Hussein was found hiding in this hole in Ad-War
Hussein was found hiding in this hole in Ad-Dawr

The soldiers make a new friend

Mr Rogerson and the other guards, who became known as the Super Twelve, were tasked with guarding Hussein for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The soldiers were told not to interact with the man who was perhaps the most famous prisoner in the world – but it didn’t take long for them to break this rule.

“Saddam was a people person. Whether he was trying to manipulate us, or genuinely be friends with us, it’s not clear. But if you’re living with someone, you’re going to interact with them.”

Hussein was being kept prisoner in one of his former palaces called The Rock, with the guards having to regularly transport him to the Iraqi High Tribunal for his hearings.

“We would hear mortars going off, gunfire, we could hear all the sounds of war. Saddam would just look at us and laugh. He never showed signs of worry.

“On more than one occasion he would look over and jokingly say ‘I’m getting out, they’re coming to get me’.”

Mr Rogerson never doubted Hussein was a “maniacal dictator” who was guilty of the crimes he had been accused of – but says as he got to know him he found the tyrant could be genuinely good-humoured.

On one occasion, the guards were talking about how another of the Super Twelve soldiers had wet themselves. Hussein is said to have burst out laughing when he heard the story.

Read more:
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Adam Rogerson guarded Saddam Hussein between August and December 2006

Hussein and the soldiers trade gifts

Mr Rogerson also says the mass-murdering despot appeared to have a softer side that helped them form a friendship as the weeks went by.

“We would trade stories. We would take him to see his family and they would bring him handkerchiefs and candy.

“He would share the candy with us, and then we sort of started giving stuff we’d received from our families to him.”

During the mission, Mr Rogerson’s wife sent him some scented candles and the soldier decided to give one to Hussein.

The president-turned-prisoner carved a poem into the side of it in Arabic and had it sent to his daughter as a gift.

Mr Rogerson continues: “I got to see a side of him that wasn’t evil, even though I knew he was. I only saw the 69-year-old man.

“He never came off as arrogant or as a dictator – he was just a person.”

Hussein would sometimes become animated during his trial. Pic: AP
Hussein would sometimes become animated during his trial. Pic: AP

Hussein speaks about relationship with Castro

In between trial hearings, Hussein would beat the soldiers at games of chess and listen to Western music on his radio.

One evening Hussein was sitting outside in his recreation area smoking cigars when he called Mr Rogerson over.

“He had this photo book and he was showing me all these photos of him having a good time with Fidel Castro. To me it was unbelievable.

“He told me it was Castro who taught him to smoke cigars.”

Mr Rogerson says although he was impressed by Hussein, it was always in the back of his mind that he was talking to a “master manipulator” and that this “wasn’t his first rodeo”.

Whether Hussein had genuine affection for Mr Rogerson and the rest of the Super Twelve will never be known – but the soldiers themselves clearly developed a deep connection to the man who was supposed to be their enemy.

In November 2006, Hussein’s trial came to an end and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Saddam Hussein, right, with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro
Saddam Hussein with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro

‘I almost felt like a murderer’

Mr Rogerson was among the handful of Super Twelve soldiers who cried tears of grief after the execution, while many Iraqis themselves celebrated the brutal death of their former dictator.

Speaking about the historical day of Hussein’s execution, Mr Rogerson says: “It was emotional. We were watching him comb his hair and pace around. He knew what was going to happen that day and it was sad to see.

“He was sad and upset, and we’re all upset ourselves. I’d gotten to know him, spent all my time with him, and then all of a sudden he was about to die.”

Mr Rogerson later told the author Will Bardenwerper that Hussein’s execution “was like losing a family member”.

“I almost feel like a murderer, like I killed a guy I was close to”, he added.

Iraqis celebrate after Hussein's execution
Iraqis celebrate after Hussein’s execution

Mr Rogerson, now in his 40s, has since left the military and is living in Ohio where he works as an American football coach.

The father-of-two, who has a 15-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since returning from Iraq.

He says it was caused by his experience guarding Hussein and then witnessing his execution.

He continues: “One day my grandkids will know that I did something for my country.

“That makes it worth it.”


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