WASHINGTON - When soldiers from a Western Maryland military police unit arrived at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad last fall to take up guard duties, there was a problem: They had never been trained in handling prisoners or running a corrections facility.
A blistering Army report that details abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees also points to training flaws among the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cresaptown, outside Cumberland, and the battalion that they became part of when they reached Iraq.
Six soldiers from the company now face criminal charges that include aggravated assault and mistreatment of prisoners, while some of their superior officers and sergeants were reprimanded yesterday for alleged leadership failures that included the training lapses.
"I find that prior to its deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 320th MP Battalion and the 372nd MP Company had received no training in detention/internee operations," wrote Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who was assigned to investigate the prison when reports of abuse surfaced. The soldiers also were not instructed in the Geneva Conventions, which governs treatment of prisoners, Taguba wrote in his report, obtained by The Sun.
Taguba does not say that inadequate training and poor leadership absolves those he accuses of "egregious acts and grave breaches of international law." And he asserts that other soldiers in similar circumstances managed to deal with the alleged shortcomings of their leaders and their training.
"Many individual soldiers," the general wrote, "overcame significant obstacles, persevered in extremely poor conditions and upheld Army values."
He also singled out for praise Spc. Joseph M. Darby, 24, of Cumberland, a member of the 372nd, for alerting his superiors to the activities at the prison.
When the soldiers mobilized for Iraq, the only training they received amounted to "common tasks and law enforcement training," and there was no indication the 800th Military Police Brigade, which oversaw the 372nd and the 320th, was aware of the deficiencies or asked for more detailed training from military corrections commanders in the Army, the report said.
Taguba's details about the lack of training jibe with the comments of family members of the 372nd soldiers.
"He never had any training dealing with POWs," said Martha Frederick, the wife of Staff Sgt. Ivan H. "Chip" Frederick, one of the six who is facing criminal charges. She said that her husband, although a corrections officer at a Virginia prison, had no experience taking part in interrogations.
As for military training before going to Baghdad, she said her husband spent about a year on active duty in Pennsylvania, mostly patrolling a base as a military police officer, stopping speeding vehicles, for example, or chasing after kids out past their curfew.
Then, several years ago, he had two weeks of drills in Egypt that focused mostly on highway stops, patrolling and the use of radio equipment, she said.
Among the other soldiers in 372nd was Capt. Donald J. Reese, a window-blind salesman before being called to active duty and becoming essentially the warden of the Iraq prison. Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits, who has been charged with conspiracy and dereliction of duty, worked at a McDonald's restaurant in civilian life and was trained by the Army to repair military police vehicles.
"Why was a mechanic allowed to handle prisoners?" Sivits' father, Daniel, asked last week.
As a result, the brigade "relied heavily" on those soldiers who had civilian corrections experience, said the report, with Frederick being among the most prominent.
Some MPs insisted that they received regular training on the basics of detainee operations, said the report, but could not provide any documentation, sign-in rosters or recall the content of the instruction.
The MPs also routinely held detainees brought to the prison by "Other Government Agencies" - a standard reference to the CIA - without accounting for them. These prisoners were nicknamed "ghost detainees." On at least one occasion, according to the report, those detainees were moved around the prison to hide them from a visiting International Committee of the Red Cross survey team, a violation of international law.
The investigation led the commander of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, to order an assessment of all stateside Reserve training, particularly for MPs and military intelligence soldiers. In February, Helmly assigned Col. Beverly Ertman, the Army Reserve inspector general, to oversee the assessment, officials said.
"He feels quite strongly that any allegations of the mistreatment is not due to the lack of training," said Al Schilf, a spokesman for Helmly. Still, the general said it's prudent to look at all training, Schilf said. "There's going to be a thorough in-depth assessment," he said.
Taguba said in his report that immediate action was needed in Iraq to help with the training problems. He suggested sending a mobile training team to Baghdad to instruct the soldiers on such basics as internment operations, international law, facility management and Arab cultural awareness. Pentagon officials could not immediately say whether that recommendation has been followed.
But military officials in Baghdad said another Taguba recommendation has been put into effect. Col. Jill Morgenthaler, a military spokeswoman, said all military police dealing with detainees now receive comprehensive training under the Geneva Conventions guidelines.
Normally, Reserve units train one weekend a month. Each year, the soldiers receive two weeks of training, involving either a military exercise or a support-type mission, said Maj. Greg Yesko, a spokesman for the 99th Reserve Component Command in Pittsburgh, which includes the 372nd.
Lt. Col. Boyd Collins, a spokesman for the Army Reserve in Atlanta, said training of reservists falls to the active-duty Army once the soldiers are called to active duty.
Before heading overseas, the 130 soldiers of the 372nd trained at Fort Lee, Va., arriving in February 2003 and leaving in May for the Persian Gulf, said Tim Hale, a base spokesman. They performed a variety of duties in Iraq before being assigned to the prison in the fall.
The Fort Lee training revolved around basic field exercises, such as weapons qualifications, gas mask training and combat first aid, Hale said.
Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun