At the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the military police from the D.C. National Guard had a two-word slogan that they repeated every time they saluted.
"Honor bound," they said, shorthand for the full phrase "honor bound to defend freedom."
Capt. Roland Lane, commander of the 273rd Military Police Company, brought up the slogan when asked at the unit's homecoming yesterday whether he had heard or seen prisoner abuse while at Camp Delta guarding detainees from the war in Afghanistan. Guantanamo, he said, was not like the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where guards have been accused of torturing and humiliating prisoners.
" 'Honor bound' was the atmosphere down there," Lane said, as a military band played marching tunes on the other side of the D.C. Armory. "The leadership kept stressing: 'You're here to provide fundamental services to detainees. They're not here for your amusement. They're not here for your entertainment.' That's what it was like, from Day One."
Lane and the 95 men and women who served under him came home yesterday at the end of a 22-month deployment that had them guarding the Capitol and the Pentagon before heading to Guantanamo for 10 months.
In Cuba, it was their job to bring food to the prisoners three times a day and escort them to showers. They were specifically instructed not to even touch the Korans issued to Muslim detainees, in deference to their religious sensitivities. Unlike the military police at Abu Ghraib, they did not participate in interrogations. Dogs were used only as security at the airport. And several said they knew of no instance in which soldiers posed for souvenir photographs beside hooded or shackled detainees.
"A hungry or an angry detainee is not an effective candidate to participate with the folks who need information," Lane said.
"We didn't skip a beat once the Abu Ghraib story broke," he added, noting that a senior officer kept an office less than 30 feet from an active cellblock. Commanders at Guantanamo took the position that they were doing things right, he said: "There was nothing to worry about, not even the slightest change in the way we do business."
Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr., commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said he was confident there had been no prisoner abuse or torture by the men and women of the 273rd.
"Not with this group," he said, noting they had been specially trained in procedures for guarding enemy prisoners of war. He also said the Guantanamo mission was less stressful than Abu Ghraib because it was not in an active combat zone.
"And in our unit, there aren't many young kids," he added, nodding toward the armory floor, where quite a few soldiers with graying hair were holding reunions with their grandchildren.
It is too soon to know how many will decide to leave the Guard after their return from such a lengthy, wearing deployment. Wherley predicted that they would not be redeployed for several years -- "unless the war goes poorly," he added.
But many are like Lane, who told his fiancee before they married that she needed to make sure she could accept his commitment to the Guard.
"I signed up for it, and I'm here," said Spec. George Washington, in civilian life a department store salesman who has been mobilized on one mission or another for almost three years. "And if I get called up again, I'll go."
Many of the family members sitting on the bleachers or folding chairs beside the soldiers could not hide their relief that this deployment had ended without a casualty.
Geralline McCullough made her son, Sgt. Michael McCullough, spin himself around several times to assure her that he had come home in one piece. Her younger son, Marc, is a military police officer in another unit. He recently returned from 14 months in Iraq. But he could not attend his brother's homecoming ceremony because he is preparing to redeploy to Germany.
"It's not a good feeling," their mother acknowledged. "I'm just happy they didn't come back in a body bag, because so many others did."
McCullough said she had grown to hate the ringing of a phone or a knock on the front door. She had to force herself to watch the news on television because it made her cry.
"I said a prayer every day, not for just my sons, but for the whole unit," she said. "You can't say a selfish prayer."
Michael McCullough, 42, intends to remain in the Guard for two years or more, at least until he reaches the 20 years necessary for retirement.
"This is my going out with a bang," he said of his service in Guantanamo. "Unless I get assigned to Iraq."
As his mother listened, she clutched a triangular case holding a folded American flag that each returning soldier was given.
"At least he can see it, in living color," she said. "At least it's not draped over him. At least it's not something you have to make a speech over."