Hours after ground operations started in the Persian Gulf war, Iraqi prisoners were streaming in by bus, truck and helicopter to the prison camp that Maryland National Guard troops helped build in the desert.
Some regular Iraqi Army troops arrived saying, "George Bush is great." Others from elite Republican Guard units were still resisting, though in handcuffs. And a great many "were guys who decided it would be better to be a prisoner than to die in a ground war," said Spc. Ronald Raab Jr., 26, who serves with the 290th Military Police Company.
Raab's unit, which was activated from the National Guard armory in Towson, is part of a battalion comprising about 1,500 MPs from several states.
Raab came home to Glen Burnie Monday on emergency leave to care for his wife, Bonnie, who requires complete bed rest in the final weeks of a difficult pregnancy. Before he left camp, Raab said, his battalion was guarding about 16,000 Iraqis.
The 290th deployed to Saudi Arabia last December and spent several weeks in a Bedouin camp north of Dhahran, where many in the company had complained to visiting Maryland news reporters that they were vulnerable to terrorist attacks from nearby highways. Shortly after Christmas, the battalion moved west to a military city closer to the Kuwaiti border where it guarded an Army communications center.
On Jan. 22, the battalion moved to a patch of desert in the area of Hafar al-Batin, about 60 miles south of the Iraq border. There, the soldiers built a prison camp, erecting guard towers and laying a wall of concertina wire five feet high. The MP units encamped in a ring around the perimeter of the prison camp.
In the first few weeks at Hafar al-Batin, Raab said, the soldiers ate one hot meal. He went three weeks without a shower.
Tall and thin, Raab lost 20 pounds while overseas.
Prisoners began trickling in before the ground war started, Raab said.
After arriving, prisoners went to one of three holding tents where they were searched and given blankets, water and Saudi field rations of canned tuna and corned beef. One of Raab's duties was to escort prisoners in groups of five to the holding tent and bTC then to several other processing stations, where they would be strip-searched, photographed, fingerprinted and questioned by intelligence officers. At a supply tent, the prisoners received fresh underwear, a toothbrush, toothpaste and shower shoes.
Prisoners made no trouble, he said.
At Hafar al-Batin, Raab participated in a Scud missile alert. He donned a chemical weapons suit and went back to sleep. Another time, he heard an explosion as a Patriot missile intercepted a Scud bound for Riyadh. As the debris landed about 2 miles away, "you could feel it," he said. "The ground shook and you could feel the concussion in the air."
Before he left Saudi Arabia, the unofficial word was that the 290th might come home in about two months, Raab said, but "officially we haven't been told."
Raab had asked to come home last Friday, when he learned in a phone call of his wife's condition. Sunday, he boarded a C-5 military cargo plane for home. He was excited about his homecoming, but regretted leaving the rest of his company behind.
About an hour before landing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Raab happened to look into the cargo hold. There he saw the coffin of a fallen soldier. "It kind of got me quiet for a while," he said.