On a daytime patrol in central Baghdad just over than a week ago, a U.S. military advisory team and Iraqi soldiers happened to look over a wall and found something horrific.
"They saw multiple bodies laying on the floor of the facility," Staff Sgt. Mitchell Gibson of the 82nd Airborne Division told CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan. "They thought they were all dead, so they threw a basketball (to) try and get some attention, and actually one of the kids lifted up their head, tilted it over and just looked and then went back down. And they said, ‘oh, they’re alive’ and so they went into the building."
Inside the building, a government-run orphanage for special needs children, the soldiers found more emaciated little bodies tied to the cribs. They had been kept this way for more than a month, according to the soldiers called in to rescue the 24 boys.
"I saw children that you could see literally every bone in their body that were so skinny, they had no energy to move whatsoever, no expression on their face," Staff Sgt. Michael Beale said.
"The kids were tied up, naked, covered in their own waste — feces — and there were three people that were cooking themselves food, but nothing for the kids," Lt. Stephen Duperre said.
Logan asked: So there were three people cooking their own food?
"They were in the kitchen, yes ma’am," Duperre said.
With all these kids starving around them?
"Yes ma’am," Duperre said.
It didn’t stop there. The soldiers found kitchen shelves packed with food and in the stockroom, rows of brand-new clothing still in their plastic wrapping.
Instead of giving it to the boys, the soldiers believe it was being sold to local markets.
The man in charge, the orphanage caretaker, had a well-kept office — a stark contrast to the terrible conditions just outside that room.
"I got extremely angry with the caretaker when I got there," Capt. Benjamin Morales said. "It took every muscle in my body to restrain myself from not going after that guy."
"My first thought when I walked in there was shock, and then I got a little angry that they were treating kids like that, then that’s when everybody just started getting upset," Capt. Jim Cook said. "There were people crying. It was definitely a bad emotional scene."
There was nothing more emotional than finding one boy who Army medics did not expect to survive. For Gibson, that was the hardest part:
Seeing a boy who was at the orphanage, where Logan reported from, "with thousands of flies covering his body, unable to move any part of his body, you know we had to actually hold his head up and tilt his head to make sure that he was OK, and the only thing basically that was moving was his eyeballs," Gibson explained. "Flies in the mouth, in the eyes, in the nose, ears, eating all the open wounds from sleeping on the concrete."
All that, and the boy was laying in the boiling sun — temperatures of 120 degrees or so, according to Gibson.
Looking at the boy today, as he sits up in his crib without help, it is hard to believe he is the same boy, one week later — now clean and being cared for along with all the other boys in a different orphanage located only a few minutes away from where they suffered their ordeal.
Another little boy right shown in the photos was carried out of the orphanage by Beale. He was very emaciated.
"I picked him up and then immediately the kid started smiling, and as I got a little bit closer to the ambulance he just started laughing. It was almost like he completely understood what was going on," Beale said.
When CBS News visited the orphanage with the soldiers, it was clear the boys had been starved of human contact as much as anything else, Logan said. Some still had marks on their ankles from where they were tied. Since only one boy can talk, it’s impossible to know what terrible memories they might have locked away.
The memory of what he saw when he helped rescue the boys that night haunts Ali Soheil, the local council head, who wept during the interview.
Later at the hospital, Lt. Jason Smith brushed teeth and helped clean up the boys. He and his wife are both special education teachers, and he was proud to tell her what the soldiers had done.
"She said that one day was worth my entire deployment," Smith said. "It makes the whole thing worthwhile."
This is a tough test for the Iraqi government: How a nation cares for its most vulnerable is one of the most important benchmarks for the health of any society.