Soldiers' story shifts from pride to shame

Crisis In Iraq

May 02, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When the American military took over Saddam Hussein's prisons a year ago, they inherited a system in shambles, haunted by a legacy of torture, abuse and murder. But by last December, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski told a Florida newspaper, the transition to order and humanity was on the right track.

The general said that was particularly true at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where daily operations were being run by the 372nd Military Police Company, a prideful Army Reserve unit based near Cumberland. For many of Abu Ghraib's 900 inmates, Karpinski boasted to the St. Petersburg Times, "living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point, we were concerned they wouldn't want to leave."

It is now apparent that the general's assessment was, to say the least, off the mark.

Karpinski has been relieved of her command, and 14 soldiers from the 372nd face either criminal charges or administrative charges or have been detained in connection with a widening scandal over alleged mistreatment of Abu Ghraib's prisoners.

During the period when the general said things were going so well, soldiers under her command were snapping graphic photos and videos of prisoners engaging in forced sexual acts, or being attacked by dogs, or being hooked up to fake electrodes under threat of electrocution - some of it occurring while troops of the 372nd stood by in poses of triumph and ridicule.

The images have elicited disgust all the way up the chain of command to the White House, although the photos seem almost tame in comparison to a description offered by one of the charged soldiers of the 372nd, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, whose handwritten journal of events at the prison says that harsh treatment by U.S. intelligence interrogators killed a prisoner, which they then tried to cover up by staging a medical emergency.

For the Pentagon, the controversy has generated some of the most damaging international publicity of the war, at a crucial moment when Iraqi sentiment was already reaching a boil over recent fighting.

But the emotional impact may prove to be deeper and more lasting in communities near Cumberland, the hometowns of the soldiers of the 372nd.

The waving flags and honking horns of supportive rallies held in Cumberland last spring have given way to uncertainty and circumspection, as well as a growing sentiment among some families that their loved ones, sent off to do a job with inadequate training, are now being made into scapegoats for the excesses of the U.S. intelligence-gathering mission in Iraq.

"Why was a mechanic allowed to handle prisoners?" Daniel Sivits asked plaintively in reference to his son, Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, who was trained to repair military police vehicles for the 372nd but wound up serving as a prison guard.

Hailing from the Pennsylvania town of Hyndman, about 12 miles north of Cumberland, Sivits has been charged with conspiracy and dereliction of duty after being present when some of the photos were taken.

"Where was their training?" his father said. "Who was their supervisor? Where was the leadership?"

Not everyone is so ready to embrace such disclaimers.

"You may not have been trained in that specific thing, but I just can't understand what they were thinking," Sue Reese, wife of company commander Capt. Donald J. Reese, said after seeing the pictures, which turned her stomach. "I just can't understand how you can explain that."

Captain Reese now faces administrative charges, although he told his wife he wasn't aware of the alleged actions until a superior officer showed him the photos several months ago, when the investigation was under way.

The 372nd's mission, like much about the war in Iraq, began with fanfare and optimism, amid assurances from Washington that Iraqis would greet the Americans as liberators, not conquerors. When the unit was activated for duty in February of last year, there was no talk of how to run a prison. Training before deployment at Fort Lee, Va., focused on combat, not its aftermath.

"The training tempo is geared towards basic soldier survival skills, weapons training, and a variety of military police missions," Captain Reese and 1st Sgt. Brian G. Lipinski, who also faces administrative charges, wrote that March, in a company newsletter printed by the Cumberland Times-News.

Morale was high, church attendance was regular, and the marching was enthusiastic, Reese and Lipinski wrote in the newsletter of the sort that many military units produce to keep families apprised of their activities.

That April, 180 soldiers from the unit landed in Kuwait. Before they could get to Iraq, President Bush declared the end of major combat from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. By July, the unit had moved into the country, operating out of Al Hillah, where its soldiers were working with the local police force to help keep law and order.

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