372nd Unit Deserves Better Homecoming

Published 8/8/2004

The soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company recently came home from Iraq — and some are pretty angry. Made infamous by the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, they have been caricatured as a bunch of thuggish yahoos from the hills of West Virginia and Maryland. Now their entire unit may be deactivated.
They seem, however, unwilling to go quietly, taking their infamy into self-imposed exile.

I first learned about the 372nd a year ago. One of my students, Richard Murphy, had been sent to Iraq after his first year of law school. When Murphy called me just before he entered Iraq, he said his parents had sent him body armor because his unit had been given out-of-date Vietnam-era flak jackets. I learned that 40,000 other soldiers in Iraq lacked either the vests or the essential ceramic plates, and I wrote columns that focused national attention on the problem.

The world’s outrage

When the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal hit, the 372nd was suddenly the focus of international coverage. Stories detailed the broken family histories of some of the accused guards, including sexual affairs and wife beatings. Defendant Pvt. Lynndie England, featured in some of the most shocking pictures, was reported to be carrying the child of another defendant, Spec. Charles Graner Jr. Both appear in sexually explicit photos. England’s military pretrial hearing created additional shockwaves this past week.

As for the other soldiers, they feel as if they’ve been made to look like recruits from a Jerry Springer show, “hicks with sticks.” It did not matter that few of these soldiers had contact with “Tier 1,” where military intelligence held special prisoners. It did not matter that other tiers (not under the supervision of military intelligence) appear to have been run in a professional and humane fashion. None of that mattered because none of that fit the spin. The abuses were portrayed as the isolated product of some whacked-out white trash who became savages the moment social controls were loosened.

The return of troops can always be a mixed blessing for politicians. They can return with new perspectives and difficult questions about the planning and purpose of a war. Putting aside Abu Ghraib, the 372nd was a microcosm of the problems experienced by many soldiers in Iraq.

Wrong expectations

Members of the 372nd did not expect to serve beyond a year in Iraq. They were extended twice. From the outset of their deployment, they discovered that they would have to fend for themselves without essential equipment. In addition to not being issued the modern Kevlar vests, the 372nd discovered that it would be given unarmored Humvees to drive through some of the most violent areas of Iraq. Then the unit was told to ride guard duty for a Halliburton subsidiary. The soldiers rode next to truck drivers making $70,000 a year — three times their salaries — to protect the deliveries of this private company. Murphy said he felt like a rent-a-guard for a mega-conglomerate that could afford its own security force.

Despite these experiences, the 372nd took pride in getting the job done. The soldiers guarded trucks traveling more than 100,000 miles through hostile Iraqi territory. They trained about 2,000 police officers. And, yes, they ran Abu Ghraib for six months. They offer a different story from the “other tiers,” including how they fought for better food and conditions for detainees. None of that mattered after the pictures from the prison.

Now, they’ve come home with many questions: Unit members say they want to know why their families had to buy their body armor. They want to know why they were given Humvees with the protection of a Ford Pinto. They want to know why they were required to guard private trucks. More important, they may want to know why they’ve been made the scapegoats of this scandal.

This week, 372nd troops were awarded Purple Hearts, but they are coming home with more than medals on their minds.