Cumberland stands by 372nd

Just days ago, the Army's 372nd Military Police Company, based near Cumberland, was the source of unabashed pride in the city, the reason yellow ribbons are tacked to tree trunks and fences, and why the Wal-Mart posts pictures of the unit's young soldiers near its doors.

That changed somewhat Wednesday when the country found out what Cumberland-area residents had been whispering for weeks - that members of the unit, deployed in Iraq, have been accused of committing crimes against Iraqi prisoners in their custody.

"I'm disappointed that there is a black eye on this entire group for the actions of a few," said Becky McClarran-Mizak, whose son, Danny Mizak, is in the 372nd and returned home this month after being injured in a roadside attack. "We still have to support our troops."

Much like this gritty city they live in, some residents say they're not willing to change. They decided long ago to support the men and women of the 372nd, when the unit was deployed in February 2003 to a training base in Virginia and three months later to Iraq, and they aren't changing now, even in light of the allegations.

"It's war, and war is not always fair and its not always pretty," said Adrienne Ottaviani, a Cumberland resident and former Allegany County commissioner. "It was the ugliness of war that we saw. But I don't think any of them should go to jail for this."

A report Wednesday on the CBS program 60 Minutes II showed Iraqi prisoners being tortured as U.S. servicemen and women - most now identified as members of the 372nd - laughed and gave thumbs-up gestures in front of a camera they apparently used to record their actions.

These incidents have been reported around the world, including by the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera. The allegations are expected to further complicate U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

"I didn't see it coming. These are friends of mine. I served with them," said Kerry Shoemaker-Davis, who served 13 years of active and reserve duty in the Army before being discharged in 2001. She was in the 372nd for four years. Her husband, Sean Davis, is in Iraq with the unit and was not one of those involved, she said.

"We've been hearing the rumors for quite some time now and just didn't want it to be true," said Shoemaker-Davis, who lives in Fort Ashby, W.Va., about 15 miles from Cumberland. She said she recognized a reservist she served with in the 60 Minutes II report.

"I'm really having a hard time with this," she said. "It's embarrassing."

Cumberland is a hilly, working-class town of 24,000, with few signs of modernization. A major transportation hub in the 1800s, it later suffered from the closure of its large textile and tire plants. Everything about it is simple and laid back. And everyone, it seems, knows somebody in the 372nd.

Earlier this year, when she thought that too many of the news reports about combat in Iraq were negative, McClarran-Mizak organized a rally at the town's pedestrian mall, with posters, flags and cheers for the troops. Some continue to gather at the mall on Saturdays to support the unit, even though a formal event isn't planned.

The 372nd has received care packages and letters from residents. And during the Christmas season, each of the more than 160 members of the unit was adopted by a family in the Cumberland area and sent gifts.

Not everyone here is sure that what they have seen or read purports any wrongdoing by U.S. servicemen and women.

"I'm sure there is more than one side of the story, and we don't know all the facts," said Robert Hutcheson, a Cumberland resident and Allegany County commissioner. "In my mind, this is no blemish on their record."

Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 172 in Cumberland was been a strong supporter of the unit at the rally arranged by McClarran-Mizak along the pedestrian mall downtown.

"The little bit I have read about, it seems to me that it is being completely blown out of proportion," said Roger Krueger, who served in Vietnam and is the chapter's president. "When a person is in combat, they have to do whatever they have to do to stay alive."

A local pastor whose church has sent care packages to soldiers in the 372nd said he isn't convinced the accused have done anything wrong.

"I know from being in a semipublic position, there's lots of accusations out there. Let's wait until we get all the facts before we jump to any conclusions," said the Rev. John Herbst of Winifred Road Church of Christ. "Maybe it's much ado about nothing. We're still standing behind our boys."

The 372nd was supposed to have come home this week after a year in Iraq. The troops had made it to Kuwait and were awaiting a flight when the military told them they were needed for another assignment in Iraq.

Cumberland had planned a homecoming rally, with American flags and marching bands. And residents say they'll be ready to stage that rally when the 372nd finally does come home.

"We're just a small community that sticks together," McClarran-Mizak said.

Sun staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this article.