Families of the 372nd tormented by stories of POW abuses in Iraq

CUMBERLAND - For months, members of the 372nd Military Police Company harbored a terrible secret.

The Army Reserve unit based near here - whose service in Iraq made many of its members hometown heroes - had boasted six months ago of its credentials for a new security assignment at a prison west of Baghdad.

"We are relying heavily on our soldiers with correctional [officer] experience," said their newsletter, published in the local newspaper. "The regular Army can't touch us with experience."

But months later, the prison detail was disgraced in news reports across the world.

The Army said yesterday that 14 of the 17 soldiers implicated in an investigation of abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison are from the 372nd. They face either criminal or administrative charges.

To the proud reservists and their families, the publication of the allegations - that Iraqi prisoners were tormented and humiliated - was like opening a dark, musty room that had long ago been sealed off.

Among the few who had been hearing reports of the investigation since January was Ivan L. Frederick, 76, a World War II veteran from Mountain Lake Park in far Western Maryland.

His son, Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, has been recommended for court-martial by a hearing officer. The final decision rests with the top American commander in Iraq.

In neat, handwritten block letters, the son wrote a journal about his Iraq experience and sent a copy to his father.

Sergeant Frederick, who described the abuse Wednesday night on the CBS program 60 Minutes II, says in the journal that he saw Iraqi prisoners placed in intolerable conditions.

"Prisoners were forced to live in damp cool cells," says an entry said to be from January. "MI [Military Intelligence] has also instructed us to place prisoners in an isolation cell with little or no clothes. No toilet or running water, no ventilation or window for as much as three days."

A 'different culture'

In the journal, Frederick says the unit was in a strange, almost unfathomable land. Like improperly supervised children, he says, members wanted to do their jobs but were uncertain exactly what was expected of them.

In civilian life, Frederick is an officer at a correctional center in Dillwyn, Va. His wife, Martha, works there, too, in the training department.

But his journal says his background wasn't enough to prepare him for his tenure in Iraq. His unit was mobilized in February 2003.

"I have had training dealing with convicted felons of the U.S.," the journal says. "I have never had any training dealing with POWs, civilian internees or detained persons. The prisoners here are of a complete different culture."

He wrote that prisoners were abused and forced to sleep in tents wet with rain.

"A prisoner with a clearly visible mental condition was shot with non-lethal rounds for standing near the fence singing, when a lesser means of force could have been used," he wrote.

"It's really very upsetting to me that the military is doing this," his father said. "They put him in there with no experience taking care of enemy prisoners of war."

Interviewed at his home, the white-haired man came to the door with a drawn expression to defend his son.

"I don't think he did those things unless he was ordered to do so," Frederick said.

'Stupid, kid things'

Another reservist, Lynndie R. England, 21, told her mother in January about potential problems at the Iraq prison.

England grew up in a trailer down a dirt road behind a saloon and a sheep farm in Fort Ashby, W.Va., a one-stoplight town about 13 miles south of Cumberland.

Yesterday afternoon, her mother, Terrie England, pressed her fingers to her lips when a reporter showed her a newspaper photo of her daughter smiling in front of what a caption said were nude Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

"Oh, my God," she said, her body stiffening as she sat on a cooler on the trailer's small stoop.

"I can't get over this," she said, taking a drag on her cigarette.

Lynndie England, a railroad worker's daughter who made honor roll at the high school near here, had enlisted in the 372nd for college money and the chance to widen her small-town horizons. In January, however, she gave her family the first inkling that something had gone woefully wrong.

"I just want you to know that there might be some trouble," she warned her mother in a phone call from Baghdad. "But I don't want you to worry."

Lynndie England said she was under orders to say no more. The military has told the family nothing; all the Englands know is that she has been detained, apparently in connection with the unit's alleged misconduct at the prison.

"Whether she's charged or not, I don't know," Terrie England said.

This was not supposed to be the fate of a girl who grew up hunting turkey or killing time with her sister at the local Dairy Dip, making wisecracks about the cars whizzing past.

"She wanted to see the world and go to college," said Terrie England, whose T-shirt bore a design of heart-shaped American flags. "Now the government turned their back on her, and everything's a big joke."

She held photos of her daughter in khakis, smiling atop a camel in Iraq.

At most, the 372nd's alleged abuses of prisoners were "stupid, kid things - pranks," Terrie England said, her voice growing bitter. "And what the [Iraqis] do to our men and women are just? The rules of the Geneva Convention, does that apply to everybody or just us?"

Everyone had been proud of Lynndie England. A Wal-Mart in nearby LaVale displays her photo on its Wall of Honor. The Mineral County courthouse in Keyser, W.Va., posts her photograph and those of other local soldiers under a banner that says: "We're hometown proud."

Lynndie England had found purpose, and love, in the Army. She got engaged last year to a fellow member of the 372nd, Charles Graner, who appears with his arm around her in the newspaper photo.

Now, Lynndie England is detained on a U.S. base - her family declined to say where - and is barred from leaving for anything besides her job. She has been demoted from the rank of specialist to private first class. And when she calls home, she says frustratingly little.

Destiny Goin said the Army had trained her sister Lynndie for an administrative job, "a paper pusher." Instead, she wound up helping to guard 900 Iraqi prisoners of war in a sprawling, squalid compound near Baghdad.

"It's just unjust, is what it is," Goin said.

The unit had other troubles as well.

Some of the members had recently been complaining to relatives about abruptly having their stay in Iraq extended.

Others openly fretted that there were too few soldiers, radios, vehicles and ammunition to carry out a perilous new mission providing security for supply convoys.

Unit member Javal Davis has been in Iraq since February 2003, said his wife, Zeenethia Davis, 27.

Davis and Frederick, the only two soldiers identified in the investigation by the military so far, face charges of aggravated assault. Other charges could include indecent acts, battery, dereliction of duty, conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, and nonphysical abuse, stemming from photos taken of naked Iraqi prisoners, according to a military spokesman in Baghdad.

Javal and Zeenethia Davis met at age 16 through church in New Jersey and came to college in Maryland. He attended Morgan State University while she went to the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and graduated from Bowie State. They got married after graduation but didn't have much money, so both decided to join the Army Reserve.

Davis said she doesn't know what he's been doing in Iraq, nor has she gotten word that he's facing any charges. She said he never complained about lacking guidance from superior officers.

"He thinks they're trying to make examples out of people," she said. "I think the situation over there is very stressful. We're not over there. We really don't know how those prisoners are behaving."

She said she last spoke with her husband on Wednesday.

"He's not telling me what's going on. I think they're telling them not to tell us. I'm thinking he can't tell me because he can't do it over the phone."