For Abu Ghraib unit, a small-town homecoming


CUMBERLAND -- What they did was, they set the thing up for early Friday evening, when all the older folks would be coming downtown anyway, to sit on plastic chairs in the brick-paved pedestrian mall to enjoy the music -- Don Robinson on his Yamaha keyboard -- in the last of the "Friday After Five" series of free summer concerts sponsored by the city and local businesses. That way, they'd be sure to have a crowd for the Abu Ghraib unit.

It was a good idea, hometown strategic planning at its best, and it worked. It turned out to be a pleasant, late-summer evening in this old city in the famous cut between Haystack and Wills mountains. The outdoor cafes filled up fast, and all the regular concert-goers came down to the mall at Baltimore and Liberty, where they have the bandstand. So there was a good-size crowd of the blissfully patriotic -- white-haired women, elderly men in polyester baseball caps crowned in eagles and stars -- and a big roar went up as the emcee acknowledged members of the 372nd Military Police Company.

But the 372nd didn't exactly march into this old city under a snowfall of confetti. No marching bands. No soldiers spontaneously kissing grateful women. If you were looking for that sort of thing, you would have been disappointed.

The only men in uniform were members of a color guard from the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.

Any members of the 372nd who were in downtown Cumberland at sunset Friday evening -- 30 to 80 of them, depending on whom you talked to -- remained among the crowd, a few of them sporting commemorative homecoming T-shirts, their spouses holding long-stemmed red roses.

Only their commander and a sergeant were identified and called to the bandstand to speak.

But that seemed to be OK with everyone. The 372nd had had enough of the spotlight already.

The unit made a low-key return from Iraq early last month, and the soldiers dispersed from Fort Lee, Va. As folks in Cumberland and nearby Cresaptown, where the MP unit is based, are quick to point out, the ones accused of crimes at Abu Ghraib aren't from around here, and many members of the unit are reservists from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and even Ohio.

But it's Cumberland and Cresaptown that have been associated in the news media with Abu Ghraib.

So the good citizens meant to do something about that Friday evening -- to show the world that only a small minority of reservists had abused and humiliated the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and that, even in a war maybe only half the nation favors, you have to turn out to support your troops.

A few local politicians spoke. Representatives of Maryland's two U.S. senators extended greetings. The Lady Birds, a local chorus, sang, "God Bless America." A flock of little girls from Mount Savage, extremely cute junior cheerleaders, welcomed home the 372nd with a rhyme you didn't mind that you couldn't understand. And a local businessman announced that members of the 372nd had been named official grand marshals of the annual Cumberland Halloween Parade on Oct. 20. (Hopefully, no one will come dressed as a wired, hooded Iraqi detainee.)

But the most striking thing about this modest, delayed homecoming was the presence of the Vietnam veterans. I have now lived long enough, thank God, to see men of my own generation, slightly older brothers, turn out to do what I remember seeing veterans of World War I and World War II and the Korean War do on such occasions -- serve in color guards and stand at attention through long speeches and ceremony. Another generation passeth, and it's the Vietnam veterans who are there now to support the young men politicians ship around the world for dubious battle.

"You are in our prayers every day and it is an honor to be here for your return home," said Roger Krueger, president of Chapter 172 of the VVA, which operates a small Vietnam War museum at its headquarters on Liberty Street. Krueger, originally from Texas, lives in LaVale now and works for one of the nation's largest defense contractors. He supports the war in Iraq, but he knows many other veterans don't.

"As worldwide protests show, the war [in Iraq] was at best controversial," Krueger told the crowd. "These soldiers ... will return with a cloud hanging over them, and a deep uncertainty as to how they will be treated, and what the future holds for them.

"I know from personal experience that there is a darkness they carry deep inside. The wounds they will bear the rest of their lives as a result of their actions. It is of great concern to Vietnam veterans that our troops be welcomed home with respect and dignity. Our founding principle is, 'Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.'"

When it was over, Don Robinson slipped behind his keyboard and started singing, "Summer in the City," and an elderly man with large sunglasses stepped up on the bandstand and danced. The old folks sat quietly in the plastic chairs.

Krueger and the Vietnam veterans, and any members of the 372nd who happened to be there, strolled a few blocks to the Cumberland Armory on Centre Street for a pizza party sponsored by the Western Potomac Chapter of the American Red Cross. By about 8 p.m. they had started to call out the winning numbers in a door-prize drawing, and Roger Krueger took a moment to recall his return from Vietnam. He mentioned how the Veterans of Foreign Wars at first wouldn't allow Vietnam veterans to join, and how it was tough for veterans to find jobs back then. And he repeated that mantra: "Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another," and you could add, "no matter what," and it would reflect Krueger's belief.

"A bunch of us were opposed to the war [in Vietnam], but we went and did our duty," he said. "And there may be a bunch who oppose this war in Iraq. But we have to welcome everyone home and thank them for their sacrifice."

By 8 p.m. the moon was high over Cumberland, and some members of the 372nd, their spouses and children were still coming in and out of the armory for the Red Cross party. Some men and women stood on the steps and smoked cigarettes and tried to talk over the noise from nearby Interstate 68. Across the street from the armory is a stone monument to all who have died in wars, crowned with a gas-fired perpetual flame. You don't see that sort of thing everywhere. But that's how they do it here.

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