Return to civilian life put on hold for 14 reservists

Abu Ghraib: Soldiers who might be called as witnesses in courts-martial have been ordered to remain on active duty.

October 18, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PETERSBURG, Va. - After enduring 15 months in Iraq and the public scorn that came when some members of his Army Reserve unit were implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, Sgt. Robert Jones II wanted nothing more this fall than to return to his civilian job as a Baltimore patrol officer and his modest dreams of one day opening a couple of hot dog stands.

That hasn't happened. Instead, Jones is one of 14 members of the Western Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company - all likely witnesses in the criminal trials arising from the Iraqi prison abuses - who found their active-duty status extended just as they thought they were headed home.

Keeping the soldiers on active duty at Fort Lee, Va., allows military prosecutors ready access to potentially key witnesses in the Abu Ghraib cases. But Jones and two other members of the unit said in interviews with The Sun that they feel like prisoners of the prison scandal.

"We feel that this has just gone a little above and beyond the call of duty," Jones said. "Everybody else in the unit, they're home right now. But us, who are here to help the Army out, we're being retained here at Fort Lee. I say detained. ... No matter how well you're trying to treat me, I feel like I'm in a prison. I feel like we've earned the right to be released."

After more than a year in Iraq, the 100 or so soldiers in the Cresaptown-based 372nd arrived back in the United States at Fort Lee in mid-August. They handed in their weapons and received medical checkups, and within about a week, most returned home to their families and civilian lives in surrounding states.

But the military extended active duty for the 14 soldiers now at Fort Lee after identifying them as material witnesses in the courts-martial stemming from the Abu Ghraib investigations, said Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, an Army spokeswoman.

Robbins said the military took extraordinary care in making the request, which originated with the commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, and was approved in early August by two top Army officials, Reginald J. Brown, Army assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs; and Les Brownlee, the acting secretary of the Army.

"We respect that people have their lives to get on with, but we really want to do the right thing here," Robbins said. "We're not just being indiscriminate about disrupting their lives."

An expert on military law said keeping the soldiers on active duty just because they are potential witnesses is "a waste of taxpayers' money and very shortsighted."

"I think it's an abuse of discretion to hold a GI, who is a U.S. citizen, on active duty just to ensure their ability to testify," said Eugene R. Fidell, a former military prosecutor who is president of the independent National Institute of Military Justice in Washington.

Fidell said prosecutors have other ways to ensure that their witnesses appear at trial. Military witnesses who are ordered to appear at a trial and don't show up can be prosecuted in military court. Civilians who fail to respond to a subpoena can be brought to court on a warrant of attachment, the military equivalent of a bench warrant.

Every trial is like a theatrical performance, Fidell said, with witnesses playing important roles. "Everybody needs to be there on cue," he said. "But you don't need to keep people chained in their seats."

The soldier witnesses from the 372nd have been extended until Feb. 22, the final day of their original two-year call-up order. It is not clear whether all of the Abu Ghraib prosecutions will be completed by then or what will happen to the witnesses now on extended duty if the cases aren't finished.

One of those accused, reservist Pfc. Lynndie R. England, is scheduled to be court-martialed in January at Fort Bragg, N.C. Six other members of the unit also were charged in the abuses. One of the accused, Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits, has pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in prison, and the others face military court proceedings, for now in Iraq.

Several of the soldiers at Fort Lee have testified against the accused, by telephone, in pretrial proceedings.

At a hearing in England's case in August, Sgt. Hydrue S. Joyner, a reservist from Bowie, was one of the government's star witnesses. His freewheeling testimony about trying to do the right thing in the chaotic atmosphere of a war-zone prison had much of the gallery and even the stone-faced defendant laughing out loud.

Joyner recounted how he had established "Sgt. Joyner's Hour of Power" each Friday at noon, a time when inmates "could get their prayer on," and he ticked off American nicknames - Big Bird, Spiderman and Groucho were a few examples - that he doled out to prisoners whose Arab names were difficult to pronounce.

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