When the American military took over Saddam Hussein's prisons a year ago, they inherited a system in shambles, haunted by a legacy of torture, abuse and murder. But by last December, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski told a Florida newspaper, the transition to order and humanity was on the right track.
The general said that was particularly true at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where daily operations were being run by the 372nd Military Police Company, a prideful Army Reserve unit based near Cumberland. For many of Abu Ghraib's 900 inmates, Karpinski boasted to the St. Petersburg Times, "living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point, we were concerned they wouldn't want to leave."
It is now apparent that the general's assessment was, to say the least, off the mark.
Karpinski has been relieved of her command, and 14 soldiers from the 372nd face either criminal charges or administrative charges or have been detained in connection with a widening scandal over alleged mistreatment of Abu Ghraib's prisoners.
During the period when the general said things were going so well, soldiers under her command were snapping graphic photos and videos of prisoners engaging in forced sexual acts, or being attacked by dogs, or being hooked up to fake electrodes under threat of electrocution - some of it occurring while troops of the 372nd stood by in poses of triumph and ridicule.
The images have elicited disgust all the way up the chain of command to the White House, although the photos seem almost tame in comparison to a description offered by one of the charged soldiers of the 372nd, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, whose handwritten journal of events at the prison says that harsh treatment by U.S. intelligence interrogators killed a prisoner, which they then tried to cover up by staging a medical emergency.
For the Pentagon, the controversy has generated some of the most damaging international publicity of the war, at a crucial moment when Iraqi sentiment was already reaching a boil over recent fighting.
But the emotional impact may prove to be deeper and more lasting in communities near Cumberland, the hometowns of the soldiers of the 372nd.
The waving flags and honking horns of supportive rallies held in Cumberland last spring have given way to uncertainty and circumspection, as well as a growing sentiment among some families that their loved ones, sent off to do a job with inadequate training, are now being made into scapegoats for the excesses of the U.S. intelligence-gathering mission in Iraq.
"Why was a mechanic allowed to handle prisoners?" Daniel Sivits asked plaintively in reference to his son, Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, who was trained to repair military police vehicles for the 372nd but wound up serving as a prison guard.
Hailing from the Pennsylvania town of Hyndman, about 12 miles north of Cumberland, Sivits has been charged with conspiracy and dereliction of duty after being present when some of the photos were taken.
"Where was their training?" his father said. "Who was their supervisor? Where was the leadership?"
Not everyone is so ready to embrace such disclaimers.
"You may not have been trained in that specific thing, but I just can't understand what they were thinking," Sue Reese, wife of company commander Capt. Donald J. Reese, said after seeing the pictures, which turned her stomach. "I just can't understand how you can explain that."
Captain Reese now faces administrative charges, although he told his wife he wasn't aware of the alleged actions until a superior officer showed him the photos several months ago, when the investigation was under way.
The 372nd's mission, like much about the war in Iraq, began with fanfare and optimism, amid assurances from Washington that Iraqis would greet the Americans as liberators, not conquerors. When the unit was activated for duty in February of last year, there was no talk of how to run a prison. Training before deployment at Fort Lee, Va., focused on combat, not its aftermath.
"The training tempo is geared towards basic soldier survival skills, weapons training, and a variety of military police missions," Captain Reese and 1st Sgt. Brian G. Lipinski, who also faces administrative charges, wrote that March, in a company newsletter printed by the Cumberland Times-News.
Morale was high, church attendance was regular, and the marching was enthusiastic, Reese and Lipinski wrote in the newsletter of the sort that many military units produce to keep families apprised of their activities.
That April, 180 soldiers from the unit landed in Kuwait. Before they could get to Iraq, President Bush declared the end of major combat from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. By July, the unit had moved into the country, operating out of Al Hillah, where its soldiers were working with the local police force to help keep law and order.
The newsletters home still struck an upbeat tone, noting, "Current operations have been more than exciting. It's like being in Dodge City in the 1870s without speaking the same language. But overall, Al Hillah is a friendly city that supports coalition forces."
The company set up a basketball game with some of the locals. The locals won, but everyone had fun. Other troops began helping local boxers hone their skills.
Then came October, and a daunting new assignment. The 372nd was put in charge of Abu Ghraib. It came at a time when Iraqi insurgents were making it clear that they wouldn't be going away anytime soon. The chores of occupation were becoming tougher, not easier, and Abu Ghraib was a mess.
"It has been a wild and uncertain fall," the unit's newsletter announced to the folks back home. "There are some real hazards with this location. ... Our rooms are prison cells, the doors don't lock and most of the windows are busted out. The plumbing doesn't work, although most of the walls are painted nicely, very talented prisoners."
Few members of the unit would have been prepared for such duty.
Reese, the company commander, who according to his wife effectively became the warden of Abu Ghraib, was a traveling salesman for a custom window blind company. Others were like Sivits, who other than training as a mechanic had flipped hamburgers for McDonald's. Lynndie R. England, who was hoping to use her Reserve money to pay her way through college, had been trained for administrative jobs.
Frederick, at least, was a correctional officer who had worked in a Virginia prison that, like Abu Ghraib, has about 900 inmates. But that's about the only similarity between the places, judging from his journal, in which he bemoaned his own lack of experience in dealing with prisoners of war and people who didn't speak his language.
Another problem was understaffing. Several soldiers have described trying to keep track of the 900 prisoners with as few as seven American soldiers at a time, sometimes augmented by Iraqi employees.
Pamela Phillabaum, wife of Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, an officer with authority over Abu Ghraib, although he was not a part of the 372nd, said her husband "asked the general [Karpinski] over and over again for more people."
And because many of the locks were broken or damaged, there was often almost no way to detain some of the more determined prisoners.
Frederick described one as a virtual Houdini, writing that, after several escapes and breakouts from seven sets of handcuffs and also a set of leather restraints, "we had cut a hole across a mattress, placed it around his body, put a waist chain around his waist, flex cuffed his arms to the chain, placed two stretchers around him and secured him between them with a nylon strap. He was out of that and attempting to run out the gate within minutes."
There seemed to be confusion over who was really in charge of Abu Ghraib.
Frederick often cites visitors from Military Intelligence (MI) or the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) as calling the shots.
Frederick said that the battalion commander would sometimes override orders from his company commander, Captain Reese. Reese's wife, Sue, said her husband "did say all along that he felt like they were on their own in terms of support."
As for the infamous photos, accounts tend to turn vague when that topic arises. Frederick's journal does not mention them.
England appears the most prominently in the photos that have been made public. In one, she and her fiance, 372nd soldier Charles Graner, are giving a joint thumbs-up over an unseemly pileup of naked Iraqis. But her family seemed as surprised as everyone else when the photos came to light.
Sivits told his parents that he is in the background of one photo and was present when others were taken, but he did not report them to higher-ups.
His father, a career military man who retired several years ago, said he long ago advised his son never to snitch on a fellow soldier, and he figures his son followed that advice.
Sivits' mother, Freda, said, "Like Jeremy said, 'Mom, if I would have said something, what would have happened to me?' He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't."
Word of the Army's investigation of the allegations began to spread in January, after a soldier who had seen the photos - and was bothered by them - took his concerns to higher-ups.
Frederick began writing his journal on Jan. 14, only a few hours after Army authorities fetched him for questioning and searched his quarters at 2:30 a.m. that day. He mailed copies to his mother, father, uncle and sister, and decided not to send it by e-mail for fear that the Army would see it first.
Yet, even then the abuses continued at Abu Ghraib, according to Frederick, who wrote on Jan. 18 of "an unruly prisoner with a broken arm. The prisoner was placed in a headlock and choked out in the presence of CID agent."
Other families back home also began to hear of the unfolding investigation at about the same time. When Reese telephoned his wife with the news, she said, "He was very vague with me. He said it was probably going to be bad."
Now, the whole world knows just how bad, and some of the soldiers who were once the pride of Cumberland are now objects of international scorn, leaving family members to wonder when and where it will all end.
Yesterday, Reese's wife recalled an earlier conversation with her husband, from well before the scandal came to light:
"I said, 'Your mom is always looking for you on Good Morning America.' He would laugh. He said, 'Nobody comes out here [to Abu Ghraib]. There will never be reporters out here.'
"Ha ha," she added, with irony. "He was so wrong."
Sun staff writers Ariel Sabar, Gus G. Sentementes and Scott Shane contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun