Around Fort Bragg, loyalty to troops outweighs scandal

Community supports Army as it decries abuse

May 07, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - On Wednesday, Spc. Phil McIlroy came home from Iraq. Yesterday, the 22-year-old visited a stone marker here bearing the name of a friend in the 82nd Airborne Division who died in an ambush last year when both were in Afghanistan.

McIlroy has heard news reports about the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He has been told that one of the accused Cumberland-based reservists, Pvt. Lynndie England, is at nearby Fort Bragg awaiting possible charges.

To McIlroy, the abuse of prisoners is plain wrong and, based on his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, rare. But what bothers him most is the black eye the episode has given the U.S. military here and abroad.

"I think the public should still support everybody over there fighting," he said. "Just because one bad thing happened, it shouldn't take away from the people who have died, who are willing to die."

Fayetteville, in southeast North Carolina, is one of the country's major military capitals. Fort Bragg has 45,000 soldiers and is home to both the 82nd Airborne and Special Operations. The Army estimates the base's economic impact on the region at $5.8 billion a year.

People here reflexively support the troops; troops count on support. The prison abuse scandal seems unlikely to rattle that bond, even as the mistreatment itself - and in some cases, the news media's coverage of it - is largely decried.

Mark Chandler said he lies in bed thinking about the abuse, it disturbs him so much.

"As if we don't have enough problems to deal with," said Chandler, 54, a Fayetteville native who works in real estate and grew up in an Army family. "We don't know what attacks will come as a result of this. It's deplorable. They're POWs, but they're still human beings."

Still, over lunch at Mr. Jim's Restaurant on Bragg Boulevard, he added: "It's not a Fort Bragg issue. Many get held responsible for the actions of a few."

One point made often this week is that none of the accused soldiers is based at Bragg. England is here because her Army Reserve company mobilized at the base en route to the Middle East. And she was brought back to the states because she is pregnant, Army officials said.

Master Sgt. Ken Heller, a spokesman for the 18th Airborne Corps here, said she is performing "light duties," most likely desk work, with a military police brigade.

Heller said England has not been detained or even restricted to the base. Reporters were not allowed onto the base without an escort, however, and Heller said such visits could not be arranged yesterday.

Army officials have said little else about England's status, except that she is likely to face criminal charges. Pictures of her - holding a leash that is wrapped around a naked Iraqi's neck, or smiling and gesturing at naked prisoners - have been broadcast around the world.

In and around Fayetteville, soldiers were easy to spot by their short haircuts. Dozens, including Spc. Chad Smith of the 82nd Airborne, took in live music and cold beer Wednesday evening at It'z, a bar near the base.

The pictures depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib anger the 21-year-old Smith. Even in the United States they have changed the perception of troops, he believes, from people trying their best under difficult circumstances to immature young men and women capable of shocking, and shockingly stupid, behavior.

"It makes us all look bad. In the eyes of viewers, all the good we've done was erased," he said. "I feel like we did a lot of good over there."

During the seven months his unit was based at Ramadi, a city in the volatile Sunni triangle, Smith said, he and fellow soldiers bought soccer uniforms for children, obtained supplies for schools and destroyed thousands of weapons taken from insurgents.

"In the 82nd, it's all about pride in yourself and your unit," he went on, so it is drummed into soldiers not to bring dishonor on the division.

Smith, from Bristol, Va., said he fears the photos will further inflame the Iraqi public and make the job even more dangerous for American troops. "They're saying, `Oh, look what the American soldiers are doing.'"

Elsewhere in the bar, most soldiers would not give their names. But several members of the 82nd and Special Forces said the real shame was that the photos exist, not that detainees might have been tormented.

One school of thought was that American soldiers taken prisoner would probably be tortured, so it should not be especially troubling to hear that Iraqi detainees were made to strip and endure sexual humiliation.

Others took a different view.

"I don't agree with what they did - we had prisoners and didn't do that," said Spc. Nathan Freeman, 24, of Charleston, S.C., whose yearlong Iraq tour ended in February. "But I think it's being blown out of proportion."

Some people here don't think the allegations should be reported at all. That was the sentiment of one 82nd Airborne veteran during the 1970s who toured the Airborne & Special Operations Museum yesterday on the outskirts of the handsome, sleepy downtown.

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.