- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2004

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Families and friends are rallying around the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, based near this Western Maryland town, saying the Reserve unit’s long history of service to the country is being unfairly tainted by the accusations of prisoner abuse in Iraq.

“I am not worried about what they did in that prison,” said a woman whose eyes filled with tears as she recounted how the body of a close friend’s 20-year-old son was returned to Cumberland after he was killed in a bomb attack in Iraq.

“That devastated this whole community,” said the 42-year-old woman, who did not give her name. “[Iraqi fighters] are blowing us up right and left, aren’t they?”

At the Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge No. 2883, near the state penitentiary where some members of the 372nd worked, some lodge members said that by focusing on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, news organizations are helping to undermine the war effort.

“The worst thing about this is it just gives Arabs more ammunition to hate us more than they already do,” said Mike Gibson, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force.

He said the story will supply fresh fuel for anti-American propaganda in the Arab world.

Another Vietnam veteran at the lodge bar said hypercritical news reports and timid military commanders would prevent a successful campaign in Iraq.

“They are not going to let them win. It’s like Vietnam,” said George Strickland, 55, a pipefitter who served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

He also criticized television networks for airing photographs of Americans giving a thumbs up and mugging for the camera beside naked and hooded Iraqi detainees while heavily editing or eliminating footage of Iraqi atrocities.

“You don’t see them dragging our guys down the street. You don’t see that on TV.”

Mike Skelley, a 50-year-old heavy equipment operator, said he disapproved of mistreating Iraqi prisoners but thought there was more to the story.

“There is more to it. It goes higher up the ranks,” he said.

Others in Cumberland said the accusations of wrongdoing on the part of area soldiers is taking a toll on homefront morale.

“It used to be people were proud to walk down the street and say they were affiliated with the 372nd,” said Tanya Vargas, the company’s former unit administration technician. “Now it is like a shameful black cloud that’s associated with it.”

Ms. Vargas said the accusations overshadow the company’s distinguished history, which includes service in World War II, the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm and peacekeeping in Bosnia.

The 372nd was activated for homeland-security missions after the September 11 terrorist attacks, protecting Maryland’s Fort Detrick, the Carlisle Barracks War College in Pennsylvania and Fort Dix in New Jersey before being sent to Iraq.

“No sooner had they come off homeland-defense mission than they were called out for deployment in Iraq,” Ms. Vargas said. “That, I think, was the hardest part for the families.”

Six reservists — Staff Sgt. Ivan L. “Chip” Frederick II; Spc. Charles A. Graner; Sgt. Javal Davis; Spc. Megan Ambuhl; Spc. Sabrina D. Harman and Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits — face prosecution in Iraq. The charges include conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty toward prisoners, maltreatment, assault and indecent acts. Eight other soldiers from the unit face administrative charges as the investigation widens and military officials call for further investigations.

The controversy erupted last week with the publication of the photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners.

Family members of one member of the 372nd shown in the pictures, Spc. Lynndie England, said the 21-year-old Fort Ashby, W.Va., woman was just “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Destiny Goin, 21, who has lived with Spc. England’s extended family since high school and considers herself Spc. England’s sister. “It’s her picture that you see more than anyone else’s, and she really wasn’t involved.”

Spc. England has not been charged, but she is being detained at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Miss Goin said Spc. England and the other soldiers who have been charged are “scapegoats — that’s what they’re being used for.”

Spc. England was trained to be a “paper pusher,” said Miss Goin and Spc. England’s brother-in-law James Klinestiver. The only reason she was in the prison area where the photos were taken was to visit friends in the 372nd who served as guards, the two said.

“I’m not ashamed of her, and I’ll stand behind her until this is over,” Miss Goin said.

Another member of the 372nd, Spc. Joseph M. Darby, 24, of Corriganville, Md., was credited by a member of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division with alerting investigators to the existence of the photographs.

Spc. Darby hasn’t discussed the case with his family, but they’re proud of what they’ve heard and read about him, said his sister-in-law, Maxine Carroll.

“He joined the military to take care of people and, honestly, that’s what he’s doing,” she said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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