WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit at the heart of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, has left Iraq for Kuwait and could head back to the United States as early as next week, military officers and soldiers said.
The ill-starred MP company, which arrived in Iraq in May 2003, will be returning without at least five of the seven soldiers charged with abusing Iraqi detainees at the prison outside Baghdad. They remain in Iraq while their cases make their way through the military justice system, officials said.
Pfc. Lynndie R. England faces charges at Fort Bragg, N.C. The seventh, Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, has pleaded guilty, been sentenced to a year in prison and is cooperating with prosecutors. His whereabouts could not be determined.
"We don't have an exact date yet," said Maj. Greg Yesko, a spokesman for the 99th Regional Readiness Command in Pennsylvania, which oversees the 372nd, based in Cresaptown, outside Cumberland, when it is not on active duty. "We know it's coming up in the next 30 days."
Sgt. Samuel Stevanus, a member of the 372nd, said in an e-mail that the company has been in Kuwait since mid-July. "They tell us we will fly back to the states on or about 01 Aug.," he wrote. "Morale is high and everyone is ready to leave this area and return to our families."
A Pentagon official said the unit could depart next week but cautioned that it could still be assigned another mission that might delay the return because it remains under control of the U.S. Central Command.
Once back in the United States, the roughly 100 soldiers in the 372nd will spend about a week at Fort Lee, Va., for demobilization before being allowed to return to their Western Maryland headquarters, officials said.
A member of the company, Spc. Joseph Darby, triggered the investigation in January by telling Army officials that he had come across pictures of detainee abuse. The scandal exploded in April when CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast some of the photos, showing naked Iraqi prisoners next to smiling Army guards, and interviewed one of the soldiers later charged, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick.
The scandal has since caused rioting in Iraq, widespread disgust throughout the world, loss of command and reprimands for some Army officers and a handful of military investigations.
For family members of the 372nd, who have received no official word of the soldiers' return, the unit's homecoming will be bittersweet.
Lloyd Wade of Mount Savage, whose son Lawrence was not caught up in the scandal, said his son looks forward to returning to his job as a Westernport police officer and reuniting with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Nikki.
"He wants to get back to society and get his life back together," said Wade. "We're looking forward to getting the troops back and having some steak feeds." He said there's talk of a welcome home party, perhaps at a local school.
But Martha Frederick, whose husband, Ivan, is awaiting a court-martial in Iraq, said, "I'm happy for the families. I wish I could know when I'll have some normalcy and when my husband's coming home."
Frederick said her husband and the other soldiers charged are scapegoats, while more-senior officers are receiving only reprimands.
Linda Comer, the Family Readiness Coordinator for the unit, said her husband, Keith, is remaining in Iraq on another assignment until December. He was not implicated in the scandal.
Since the unit's stay was extended twice, once in February and again in April, many family members are waiting to see whether the soldiers actually make it out of Kuwait, said Comer.
"They're not home yet so nobody's getting excited," she said.
Stevanus, the 372nd sergeant, added in his e-mail message from Kuwait that he and his fellow soldiers are troubled that their small unit has gained worldwide notoriety.
"Of course the court-martials are still in everyone's minds," he wrote. "Officials are still questioning people in the company both for the defense and prosecution. Lots of rumors flying around about the company. Whether we will be deactivated or become a training company so we are not deployable. But that is all rumors."
A Defense Department official acknowledged there has been discussion of shutting down the company and transferring its members to another unit. But the official stressed that the majority of the 372nd soldiers performed well in Iraq.
Deactivating the 372nd "was discussed. There are no plans to do such a thing," the official said. "That doesn't mean it can't happen."
Stevanus said the 372nd soldiers in Kuwait are eager to put the scandal behind them. "They know they served their country honorably and are proud of the work they did in Iraq," he wrote.
Staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this article.