PETERSBURG, Va. – They trained Iraqi police officers and set up a police academy, and helped rebuild courts and schools. Three of them received Purple Hearts and six earned Bronze Stars.
But members of the military police unit at the heart of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (search) said Saturday that they fear the good they did for the people of Iraq will be overlooked because of the abuse allegations.
"I don't know if people saw just how friendly we were with the local population. Folks on the street just loved it when we came into the city and we cleaned up the city with the Iraqi police," said Sgt. Stephen Pierson, who helped establish a police academy in the town of Al Hillah.
Seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company (search), an Army reserve unit based in Cresaptown, Md., are accused in the scandal, including Pfc. Lynndie England (search), who was photographed mocking naked Iraqi detainees. A military hearing is being held at Fort Bragg, N.C., to determine whether she should face a a court-martial. If convicted, she could get up to 38 years in prison. Only one of the seven soldiers accused in the abuse scandal has pleaded guilty.
More than 100 members of the 372nd returned to their families Monday at the Army's Fort Lee near Petersburg. After five days of readjustment training, three reservists agreed to talk with the media about their accomplishments, so long as no mention of the prison abuse scandal was made.
Fort Lee personnel told journalists that if they asked questions about the abuse investigation or about the seven soldiers accused of abusing prisoners, the interviews Saturday would be cut short.
"The soldiers won't be able to talk about that because it's all under investigation," Fort Lee spokesman Travis Edwards said.
Pierson said he didn't want the prison abuse scandal to diminish the work of the MP unit. "I'm pretty proud of what we accomplished over there ... (The scandal) doesn't impact upon me, why would it?" he said.
"Our unit has a rich history. One little thing is not going to dampen us," Staff Sgt. John Tamuschy said. "Why would you let one thing of a select group dampen you?"
Said Spc. Hope Rhodes, a cook: "We did our job, and we're proud of it."
The unit's first task after arriving in Iraq on May 15, 2003, was to train new Iraqi police officers and help set up a police academy, Army officials said. The unit was transferred to Abu Ghraib prison in October 2003, with some working in the detention center and others helping rebuild police stations, courts and schools in the area.
The MPs trained more than 2,000 Iraqi police officers at the academy.
Pierson said when they first arrived in Iraq the local police did not want to leave their stations without American soldiers, but that quickly changed. "They really got to the point where they wanted to show us, independent of us, they could do the job," he said.
"When we first got there it was the Wild West ... when we left you could walk the streets at night," he said.
The unit's mobilization was extended in April, and in May the reservists began escorting civilian convoys and carrying supplies for coalition forces.
Tamuscky said the extension was the only time the unit's morale dipped.