Town pride scours off taint of scandal

Abu Ghraib: In Cresaptown, home of the 372nd Military Police Company, the actions of a few fail to tarnish the rest who served honorably.

August 11, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

CRESAPTOWN - Lynndie England isn't from this blink-and-miss-it town on the outskirts of Cumberland. Neither is Charles A. Graner Jr. or Ivan "Chip" Frederick, or the other four Army reservists charged with crimes in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

Many people here are quick to note that only a handful of their own served with the 372nd Military Police Company, which is based in this rural community.

And they resolutely believe that the actions of a few soldiers shouldn't tarnish the accomplishments of a unit that spent 14 months overseas - especially when those few don't even live around here.

"We're proud that they served our country," said Rick Kelley, 50, owner of a dog- and cat-grooming business on McMullen Highway, the town's main thoroughfare. "I spent 20 years in the military, so I know what it's like. ... We're happy to see them return."

Despite such support, local residents haven't been able to give the unit the homecoming many feel it deserves. When the 100 or so soldiers in the 372nd returned to the United States last week, their first stop was in Fort Lee, Va., where they handed in their weapons, received medical checkups and were greeted by relatives.

The soldiers dispersed Sunday, without a grand return to Cresaptown. Most of them live elsewhere, from Baltimore to Northern Virginia, and from West Virginia to Pennsylvania. They left Fort Lee with families and went home, or took a much-deserved vacation.

It was different when the reservists left, early last year, with a convoy of trucks that departed from the Army Reserve office in this town, which has only two stoplights but five churches.

That convoy has yet to return. The center's compound remains virtually devoid of military vehicles.

People here point to the sacrifices the soldiers made for their country and their families in terms of the time spent away from home, or the desert conditions endured in Iraq, or the overall horrors of war in a foreign land.

In a news release last month, the Army promoted some of the accomplishments of the 372nd in Iraq, without mentioning the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Members of the 372nd set up and operated a local police station and a local police academy, and rebuilt courts, schools and police stations.

The unit's deployment was extended twice, leaving their families in an agonizing wait. They had to fulfill another mission before they could come home: providing security for civilian and military convoys.

For their efforts in Iraq, many soldiers earned Commendation Medals, Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, the Army said.

"I think it's a shame that those handful [of soldiers] put a stain on everybody," said Cody Kroll, 19, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician in the town's Fire Department. "The rest should be praised. ... With all the media-bashing, none of them are from Cresaptown. They just happened to be with the 372nd."

Some in town worry about those soldiers who have been forgotten by the new media avalanche, a scandal fueled largely by lurid photographs that circulated in late April.

Those photographs - of smiling soldiers abusing or humiliating Iraqi detainees - triggered outrage around the world and inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. For a while, the world wanted to know everything about Cresaptown.

"It was a three-ring circus down here for the longest time," said Debbie Welsh, a clerk at the post office. "You had news crews from overseas" stopping cars on the street to interview residents, she said.

It is unclear if members of the 372nd will have any kind of organized homecoming in Cresaptown, whenever they report for duty again.

At the reserve office, one soldier, who declined to give his name, said the company is scheduled to conduct a drill in the spring.

But the signs of gratitude and appreciation hang anyway in this hilly, hardscrabble area of Allegany County. Cardboard and vinyl signs, yellow ribbons and American flags adorn storefronts and many homes.

The ribbons and signs hang mostly from telephone poles and from other spots easy to see from McMullen Highway - the first road the soldiers took when they left for Iraq last year.

They read: "Well done, 372nd."

"Good to have you home, Reservist."

"Welcome Home, 372nd."

"We missed you."

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