Md. reservists' stay in Iraq is extended

Military police group was to return last week after 11 months overseas

April 21, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The 372nd Military Police Company from Cumberland, about 150 Army Reserve soldiers who arrived in Iraq in May and were preparing to return home last week, will remain in the country into June and perhaps well into the summer to provide security for military and civilian convoys, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

When the Pentagon extended the yearlong deployments of some 20,000 soldiers in Iraq last week, no Maryland-based soldiers were on the list.

Although the company has yet to officially receive its extension order, it will be coming soon, said a Pentagon official, explaining that the military reservists were tapped for extended duty last week but didn't make the list, which included active-duty and reserve soldiers. "They were still scrubbing the list," said one official, who requested anonymity, and a few units such as the 372nd "dribbled" on later.

The official expected the unit to remain another three months in Iraq and another month heading to Kuwait and packing to return home.

Two other Army Reserve units, the 120 soldiers with the 413th Chemical Company of Florence, S.C., and the 180 soldiers of the 341st Military Police in San Jose, Calif., also have been added to the list of those units remaining longer in Iraq, a Pentagon official said.

Locally, there was confusion, with a spokesman for the 372nd saying he was told the unit would be extended, while an official with a higher Army Reserve command saying no official word has arrived.

Lloyd Wade of Mount Savage, whose 25-year-old son, Lawrence, is a staff sergeant with the company and a Westernport police officer, is angry about the expected extension. "They got on the flight line in Kuwait and someone told them, `You're going back to Iraq,'" he said. "This thing was ill-conceived. I wonder who's running the show."

Wade said the planned homecoming ceremony for the troops, slated for next month at the Allegany County Fairground, will have to be postponed.

The company was scheduled to begin arriving at Fort Lee, Va., between April 17 and May 1, said Master Sgt. Mark Van Kirk, a spokesman for the 372nd, which includes part-time soldiers mostly from Maryland but also from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Texas.

Van Kirk said officials with the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command, based in Pittsburgh, which oversees the 372nd and 23,000 reservists from the mid-Atlantic states, informed them last Friday that the Cumberland-based unit would be extended to provide convoy security, although the exact length of the extension was uncertain.

"They will be beefing up the security of military and civilian convoys in Iraq, providing extra guns," said Van Kirk, noting that his phone has been "ringing off the hook" with calls from concerned parents, worried about the escalating violence in Iraq, as well as from members of Congress.

But Maj. Greg Yesko, a spokesman for the 99th RRC, said that the 372nd received an extension in December, which could have kept the military police in Iraq through June. He said there have been no new orders.

Since arriving in Iraq last spring, the reservists performed law enforcement duties around the city of Hillah for six months before dividing into three sections to provide escort duty, military police work around Baghdad and security at Abu Ghurayb prison west of Baghdad. Officials were uncertain where the 372nd would be based for its convoy duty.

Wade, whose son will remain in Iraq, wondered why his son and other soldiers would be required to provide security for civilian convoys, rather than just military forces. "They want those guys to get in there and drive shotgun," he said. "Morale's going down the chute."

Lt. Col. Dan Baggio, a spokesman for the U.S. coalition forces in Iraq, said in a phone interview from Baghdad that it was not unusual for soldiers to provide security for civilian convoys, because the trend in the past few years has been to contract with private companies to provide supplies for soldiers.

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