Army aims to polish unit's tainted image

Abu Ghraib scandal to go unmentioned as successes are hailed at homecoming

July 31, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

With the military unit at the center of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal set to return to the United States Monday, Army officials have begun the delicate task of patching up its image.

The 372nd Military Police Company, the Army will have you know, set up and ran an Iraqi police academy. It rebuilt courts and schools. And its citizen-soldiers hauled in more than 100 medals, including a bundle of Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars.

"These guys have done some great things over there, and they have some great stories to tell," said Ann Harrison, a spokeswoman for Fort Lee, the Virginia Army base where the unit will be welcomed home at a ceremony Monday evening after a 15-month tour. "The ones that did their job need to be recognized for the good job they did."

The ones that didn't - the seven criminally charged in the biggest scandal of the Iraq war - well, Fort Lee isn't talking about them. The base's generic news release yesterday makes no mention of the lurid humiliation of Iraqi prisoners or the fact that the accused soldiers won't be at the homecoming.

"We don't talk about an ongoing Army investigation, so we are not putting that in the release," Harrison said yesterday.

The reserve unit's 100 or so soldiers are expected to land at the base, near Richmond, after a 22-hour journey from Kuwait. They will visit with their families for a few hours but won't be released from active duty for at least four days. They will spend the remainder of the week turning in weapons, taking classes on how to ease back into civilian life and meeting with chaplains for psychological "decompression" sessions.

"They're getting the same decompression that any soldier returning from Iraq receives," Harrison said.

But these are not just any soldiers. The company's reputation is a particularly sensitive issue for their family members, most of whom hail from hardscrabble towns near the unit's headquarters in Cresaptown, in rural Western Maryland.

"Many of the soldiers in the unit just want to put the abuse case behind them," Sgt. Sam Stevanus, a unit member from Cumberland, said in an e-mail this week from Kuwait.

In an earlier e-mail, he wrote: "We hope the good name of our unit isn't tarnished by the acts of a few knuckleheads."

The Army isn't shying away from the task. It is opening Monday's homecoming to the news media. And it will allow on-base access later in the week to soldiers interested in talking to reporters.

The ceremony will even include a few remarks from the unit's commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese, who received stinging criticism in an investigative report on the Iraqi prison by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.

He recommended that Reese be relieved of his command, and accused him of "failing to properly supervise his soldiers" and "failing to properly establish and enforce basic soldier standards."

Travis Edwards, a Fort Lee spokesman, did not know the status of that recommendation but said Reese remains the company commander.

"When you bring a unit home from war, it's tradition that the commander speaks and tells the families how great the troops were and what outstanding things they've done," Edwards said. "That's what commanders do."

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