Monday, May 24, 2004

FORT ASHBY, W.Va. — Two weeks ago, this was a friendly town where folks were more likely to smile than scowl at a stranger.

Before journalists from around the globe descended, few people outside West Virginia had heard of the peaceful, middle-class community along Patterson Creek. And residents liked it that way.

Three words — “reporter” and “Lynndie England” — are now enough to send people scurrying from the Family Dollar, the ice cream stand and the bait shop.

“They trashed us,” says a woman at the pharmacy, smile fading as she backs away. “Just look at the Internet.”

“Nobody’s going to talk to you because they don’t think the media’s going to tell the truth,” says barber Joe Godlewski.

Pfc. England, 21, a reservist and one of Fort Ashby’s own, is among seven soldiers from the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company charged with mistreating Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. If convicted, she could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to more than 15 years in prison.

Privately, many people support the woman who used to bag their groceries at the IGA. The infamous leashed-inmate picture was clearly staged, they say.

“Somebody told her to take those pictures to humiliate those men,” Mr. Godlewski says. “Everybody I talk to believes that.”

But not everybody will say so anymore.

About 1,300 people call Fort Ashby home, and despite the image that TV cameras might project, only a few live in the tiny trailer park behind a sheep farm.

Most live in modest, well-kept homes along state Route 28. Some work on missile technology at Allegany Ballistics Laboratory. Others drive 50 miles to jobs at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant.

“This is a wonderful town filled with lovely people,” says Laura Sours, who has lived here for 25 years. “What’s happened is just horrible, and I hope to God it doesn’t reflect on what the world thinks of us.”

Fort Ashby is only 107 miles from the District, but it might as well be 1,000. It’s a place where children play safely and people leave doors and cars unlocked.

But people say that’s not how it’s been portrayed.

At the height of the press onslaught, the owner of the trailer park where the England family lives banned TV crews, then all press interviews.

“They’re making this place look dirt poor,” she said.

Now, yellow signs stand at the entrance and in the yards. They’re the same kind of signs people use to keep hunters off private property, the word “posted” a clear warning to keep out.

On Friday, a local newspaper had two news stories and three letters to the editor about the prisoner abuse.

One writer complained that his hometown of Cumberland, Md., just 15 miles up the road, has been portrayed as a home to savages.

Reporters came “to see what kind of masochistic freaks we are,” wrote Bob Leasure, now of Abingdon, Va. “The city of Cumberland does not owe any of these wannabe journalists an explanation for what a few of our soldiers did in a time of battle.

“The people in Cumberland have always been first to volunteer to serve their country, and the town is getting bad publicity for a handful of soldiers that were probably doing what they were told to do anyway,” he said. “This makes me sick.”

In West Virginia, it is Mineral County — home to Fort Ashby — that has the highest percentage of veterans. The courthouse displays pictures of locals serving overseas, but Pfc. England’s picture was removed last week.

A member of the 82nd Airborne had harsh words for Pfc. England and her unit in his letter to the Cumberland Times-News. Like Pfc. England, paratrooper Christopher Toey is now at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

“Military personnel all over the U.S. are walking with their heads down,” wrote the paratrooper, whose unit captured Iraqis, then delivered them to Abu Ghraib.

“It is a shock to know that we were sending the insurgents we captured to an inhumane place such as this,” he wrote. “They may be the enemy, but they do not deserve to be treated like they were. They are humans, too.

“All the trust that we have built over the past year is probably gone,” he said. “They have given another reason for the Arab world to hate America. The terrorists just may have what they need to turn the people of Iraq against us now. We have no one to thank but Pfc. England and friends.”

But Robert Carver, a military historian from New Orleans, said the 372nd “provides a stark contrast in how this generation of soldiers confront ethical issues.”

While seven soldiers may have committed illegal acts, the unit also had a whistleblower.

“Spc. Joe Darby represents the ethos that most Americans wish for in our men and women in uniform,” he wrote. “He refused to follow through on an obviously illegal order.”

In Fort Ashby, people just hope time will erase any stain.

“It’s like where Jessica Lynch grew up — what was it again?” says Larry Rafferty, a track coach at nearby Frankfort High School.

He meant Palestine, the Wirt County hometown of the conflict’s most famous former prisoner of war.

“A year later, and everybody has forgotten the name,” Mr. Rafferty says. “People won’t remember this place, either.”

• AP writer Gavin McCormick contributed to this report.

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