Md. reservists welcomed home

Unit at heart of Iraq prison scandal ends `long, difficult deployment'

August 03, 2004|By Ariel Sabar and Gus G. Sentementes | Ariel Sabar and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LEE, Va. - The field house on this Army base erupted in raucous cheers last night as the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company marched in, five abreast, to a brass band playing "God Bless America."

The Maryland-based company was at the heart of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. But last night, the more than 100 men and women in desert camouflage looked like ordinary fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, tearfully clutching their families for the first time in at least 15 months and trying to put a nightmare behind them.

The seven soldiers criminally charged in the torture and humiliation of prisoners at the Baghdad prison were not in attendance. Army officials restricted news media access to the returning soldiers and kept an upbeat tone that avoided any direct reference to the scandal.

"It was a long, difficult deployment," the Reserve unit's commander, Capt. Donald J. Reese, a window-blind salesmen when not in uniform, told the 200 relatives and friends who assembled in a sweltering gym for the unit's homecoming. "I witnessed great acts of kindness, bravery, professionalism by everybody here. It's easy to lead when you surround yourself with great soldiers, and the 372nd should hold their heads high."

In a brief interview afterward, Reese, who received a letter of reprimand for leadership missteps, said he had faith in the military justice system to "sort out" blame for the abuses and hoped the misconduct of a few soldiers wouldn't taint the unit's reputation.

"We are concerned about that," he said. "We did a lot of very, very good things, and I know once the story gets out - the real story, about all the good things we've done - hopefully the image will change."

Absent from the company were the soldiers charged in the abuse - faces familiar the world over from the photographs of grinning soldiers flashing thumbs-up signs over piles of naked Iraqis.

One soldier, Jeremy C. Sivitz, has already pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to a year in prison in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors.

Another, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, 21, best-known for a photograph of her leading an Iraqi prisoner by a leash, is scheduled to appear today at a criminal proceeding at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Also absent yesterday was Spc. Joseph M. Darby, a 372nd soldier who triggered the Army's abuse investigation in January by turning over a computer disk of abuse photos. His mother, Margaret Blank, said in a phone interview yesterday that he is cooperating with prosecutors as a material witness and will attend the Baghdad-based courts-martial for five soldiers, which may stretch on for months.

The scandal hurt U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq during a rash of insurgent attacks, set back U.S. relations with the Arab world, and touched off a series of investigations that have placed a measure of blame on senior military leaders for failing to prevent the abuse or at least catch it sooner.

The accused soldiers - many from hard-bitten Appalachian towns in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania - have said they were ill-trained for jobs as prison guards. Many contend that they were following the orders of military intelligence officials who wanted detainees softened up for interrogations.

The Army was eager yesterday to deflect attention from the scandal and onto the accomplishments of the soldiers who served honorably. Officials said that the reservists built a police academy, trained Iraqi police officers and helped build schools. The company suffered no fatalities during its tour of duty. But three soldiers earned Purple Hearts for shrapnel injuries from mortar rounds and improvised explosive devices.

A soldier who identified himself only as Robert approached the barricade holding back reporters and said that "the past 15 months was very rough," but an Army media escort shooed him away before any more questions could be asked.

The soldiers left Kuwait on Sunday and landed at Langley Air Force Base yesterday at 4:20 p.m. before traveling by bus to Fort Lee, 30 miles south of Richmond. They will spend at least four days there demobilizing - turning in weapons, learning to readjust to civilian life, filling out paperwork and venting emotions in meetings with chaplains before returning to their home base in Cresaptown in Western Maryland.

Col. James Robinson, Fort Lee's command chaplain, said in an interview that he did not know whether the soldiers would want to deal with their feelings about the abuse, or focus on the more common issues such as survivor guilt and practical concerns about their families. "They may let us in, they may not," he said.

A tougher time may be the return by the end of the week to their hometowns.

Reese's wife, Sue Reese, says she hopes her husband will have time to get reacquainted with their five children in peace.

"I worry that the media is going to ruin it," she said before her husband's plane landed. "I don't want him to have to deal with it or put up with it right away. I just think he's going to need a break."

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