About 100 people gathered Tuesday evening in a warm spring drizzle to pray for the members of the 372nd Military Police Company, including the seven who are charged with abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
The 372nd is based in nearby Cresaptown, and some of those at the vigil at a downtown pedestrian mall were relatives of the soldiers.
Although the organizers said they didn't plan it that way, the vigil took place on the eve of the military trial of Jeremy Sivits, who is charged with conspiracy to mistreat detainees, mistreatment of detainees and dereliction of duty for failing to protect detainees from abuse.
Sivits, 24, of Hyndman, Pa., faces a special court-martial, which is similar to a civilian trial on a misdemeanor charge. He could be ordered to serve a maximum prison sentence of one year, a penalty far less severe than the other accused soldiers face. Sivits has already given sworn statements describing the abuse, which he says he did not participate in, except to take photos. He did not report the abuse to superiors at the time it occurred. Trial dates for the other six accused soldiers have not been set.
News of the alleged abuse shocked the people of the region around Cumberland, which includes parts of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The area, battered by the loss of its coal-mining and manufacturing industries, prides itself on a long tradition of military service.
"Our troops need to know they are loved," said the Rev. Tom Landaker, pastor of Cumberland's First Baptist Church. Landaker, a Vietnam veteran who served as a chaplain to other Vietnam vets, recalled the poor reception that soldiers in that unpopular war received upon their return.
"With all the worldwide media coverage, I pray these troops will not receive the same treatment when they come home," he said, to amens from the crowd.
"We are united," said the vigil's organizer, Linda Comer of Clearville, Pa., whose husband, 1st Sgt. Keith Comer, has been in the 372nd for 23 years.
"This community and area does support our troops. They are there to do a mission, complete it and come home," Linda Comer said.
Many in the crowd had relatives who are serving in the 372nd or who have served in it.
Deanna Smith, wearing a photo of her husband, Sgt. Matthew Smith, over her heart, wept during the prayers following Landaker's comments.
Smith, 30, of Cumberland, recalled the unit's good deeds -- teaching Iraqi children to play baseball and basketball, starting discussions on fielding an Iraqi Olympic team, developing friendships with truck drivers and people on the street.
"He is a positive person in those people's lives," Smith said of her husband, watching her children, Jacob, 6, and Marissa, 8, scampering along a fountain nearby. "He still has people thanking him for being there."
As the 20-minute service ended, Comer announced plans for rallies at 1 p.m. every Saturday to support the troops. Families of the 372nd soldiers lit candles that fizzed and smoked in the damp air.
They lingered to answer questions from the members of the media who have inundated the town. Reporters and others working in the media seemed almost as numerous as vigil participants.
Several participants wore Army-green T-shirts emblazoned with the unit's logo and the words "duty, honor, country."
Barb Thomas, 43, of Cumberland, wearing her green T-shirt, spoke about her son, who she said is in the unit, but whom she would not name.
"He's called the house once [since news of the scandal broke]. He does not want to talk about it," she said.
The family, fearful that the line is tapped, asks no questions, she said.
"We're waiting on the investigation and we'll see what comes out of that," Thomas said.
Becky McClarran said "a lot of people have blamed Cumberland" for the scandal, "but none of the [accused soldiers] is even from Allegany County."
However, she said, "everyone has a responsibility to claim every soldier as their soldier."
As the last participants drifted away, Sam Malamis, 52, of Cumberland spoke up.
"When these court-martials start, there will be a lot of information revealed" about the role of intelligence agencies in the scandal, he said. As for the 372nd, he said, "bring the cameras back when we're clapping for them coming up the street."