Cumberland is `still proud'

Base: The prisoner abuse investigation brought much attention to this Western Maryland city, but few here give the scandal much thought.

Crisis In Iraq

May 07, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND, Md. - For months, this city could hardly hold back its pride in the sacrifices of the 372nd Military Police Company.

Residents organized rallies on the pedestrian mall for the local reservists deployed to Iraq. Nurses mailed care packages to the unit. The local newspaper published dozens of soldiers' accounts from the front.

And now that several members of the 372nd have been accused of abusing prisoners, this Western Maryland city of 24,000 hardly seems to be hanging its head in shame. In fact, there is little evidence of any connection between their hometown and the 372nd's headquarters just a few miles away.

The front page of the Cumberland Times-News yesterday didn't mention the prisoner-abuse scandal, instead it featured a story about the fate of slot machines at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort.

Likewise, one local television station led with the opening of a new Red Cross facility in Hagerstown, giving scant attention to the news from Iraq.

At the local commemoration of the National Day of Prayer here, there was no mention of the unit or the investigation. The only reference to the conflict in Iraq was a general troop blessing at the event's end.

Times-News Managing Editor Jan Alderton says the story is no longer local. "How many reaction pieces can you do?" Alderton said. "You can't just react it to death."

In addition to several hundred locals gathered on the pedestrian mall for the prayer yesterday, two German reporters were in the audience, brought to town because of the 372nd story. Television and radio reporters hovered nearby, too.

Local organizers told the reporters that some of the prayers might mention the 372nd, and at first that seemed to be the direction the day was headed.

Larry McGreevy took to the podium and asked the Lord to bestow "wisdom, knowledge and understanding" on a broad array of national leaders, then requested God "send nothing but confusion" into our enemy's camp. Brenda Goetz read her "Confession of National Sins," asking God's forgiveness for our greed and our nation's drug addiction.

Goetz, who is training to be a minister, said she hadn't thought to mention the prisoner abuse during her portion.

"My assignment was to pray for the sins of a nation," she said. "I felt like that was covered with what I prayed for."

On the downtown streets, where a weekly flower sale was in full bloom, talk turned to where to find the best begonias and marigolds. Unless you asked, it didn't seem like anyone was talking about whether the few accused soldiers would tarnish Cumberland.

"I don't think just a few people's judgments and decisions can reflect an entire town," said Jennifer Kauffman, who owns a music store and said very few customers are talking about the 372nd. "I mean, look at Bill Clinton, what he did as president. Does that reflect badly on the United States?"

As she sipped her morning coffee at the Queen City Creamery, local nurse Laura Wisenburg said she had been thinking about her late father's experiences in Vietnam in light of the 372nd's news. During the Vietnam War, she said, her father had killed a 7-year-old boy, and her grandmother said he was never the same after that. For her, that experience doesn't excuse the prisoner abuse, but it may help explain it.

"If you're in a situation where you know your orders are kill or be killed, it kind of downplays your respect for life," she said. "Psychologically, it affected them to a point where they didn't look at these prisoners as human beings."

Wisenburg, who sent packages to the unit along with co-workers, was appalled when she saw the photos. But, she added, the actions of a few don't represent her hometown, and shouldn't diminish local support. "We are still proud of them," she said. "They chose to give their lives and fight for our freedom."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.